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 248


Miss Dane made herself comfortable at Raes’. She could look forward to going home after school, to afternoon tea in front of a coal fire, and then, gossiping, to helping Mrs Rae with the dinner, and in the evenings reading in a comfortable arm-chair by the fire. Mr Rae was at first a little put out at having to give up his favourite chair; she had, of course offered to sit on the couch but he wouldn’t hear of it; in the end he used Mrs Rae’s chair and she sat on the couch. Miss Dane thought of taking up her new novel again but now it didn’t seem so important: it was easier to read one from the Country Library Service. She felt safer in the policeman’s house, now that the strike had started. You never knew what might happen at Palmers’ with that young man working on the dredge. She admired his courage, of course, yet she felt a secret hope that he would be beaten—he had had too much of his own way in this world already, and though a little hard work would do him no harm, a little unpopularity might make him just a little less conceited. And she hoped the Palmers would be beaten because they had no conscience about the trade they lived by. But she was worried too by Mrs Rae’s reminiscences of the Seldom strike.

‘We were a lot younger then, of course,’ Mrs Rae said. ‘It was nearly twenty years ago. Oh, it’s a shock to think of it—it makes me feel so old. Fred was new here then. It was his first sole charge. The miners started to meet that Jack Seldom at his gate every morning and fellow him to work and after that Fred had to take him to the mine in the morning and bring him home at night. And the Seldoms had to go to town to do their shopping except for the groceries. And Fred had to ride with them. Oh, the things those miners did. They strewed tacks on the road to give their car a puncture, and Jack Seldom had to drive through the blackberries on the side of the road. And then Jock McEwan’s wife pushed her pram in front of the car and there was her baby three months old in it—that’s their boy Trevor who started in the post office the year before last. Oh, it’s terrible to think of. She just pushed the pram in front of the car. It might have been run over. And Jack had to stop. And Fred said he should have driven right on—-’

page 249

‘Surely not,’ Miss Dane said.

‘Yes, he did. He said she would have brought it on herself. The law’s the law, he said, and Nellie McEwan would’ve had no kick coming. She could have been charged with murder and Fred said he’d ‘ve been just the one to put her up for it too.’

‘It’s just as well Mr Seldom stopped,’ Miss Dane said.

‘Yes, I suppose it is really. And then they came one night and I sat up in bed with a jump when I heard it; it woke me out of my sleep. They’d thrown a brick through the front window. And there was broken glass all over the carpet. And it broke my aspidistra. It never looked up after that. I had to throw it out. And Fred had to get six extra constables up to help him. And I had them on my hands. The pubs wouldn’t board them. Oh, there were three sleeping on the floor here, and one in the goal at the back, and two in the spare room. It’s just as well they didn’t have to arrest anyone because there was no room in the gaol. And I had to cook for them. And the shops wouldn’t serve us, only the grocer. And Fred had to get the police in town to send up our bread, and in the end they sent up things for the Seldoms too. Oh, and the cooking I had to do. I hope there’s nothing like it this time. I thought the town had settled down since then.’

‘And after all that Mr Seldom lost.’

‘Yes, it does seem strange, when you come to think of it. Still, if the company had no use for him, he couldn’t complain. The Seldoms weren’t ones to attack the company. Not till after the strike, anyway. They say old Mrs Seldom put a curse on it. I wonder if she knows the mine’s nationalized now. P’r’aps she’d think her curse had come true.’

This conversation frightened Miss Dane. She did not leave the house at night and she kept her window locked. Though she told herself she couldn’t be in a safer place than the policeman’s house, she slept lightly. She had no sympathy for the strike: but she hoped the publicans would give in before it got any worse. Normally she would have found the whole episode exciting, telling herself that strange experiences were still open to the teacher who was prepared to venture to remote townships. She wrote long letters to Mrs O’Reilly and her mother about it: the letters were bright and excited, but the two women who read them were just as alarmed as she was.

But she was more deeply soured over Don. She tried not to think of him; she was ashamed to think what a fool she had made of herself over a man who patently wasn’t worth it. For a month, lapped by Mrs Rae’s placid conversation, she was able to forget the evening page 250 at Ngahere and that strange doldrum of an evening at Mr Rogers’s engagement party. But one Sunday morning as she sat pedalling the little portable organ in the Presbyterian Church her guilt hit her again. The parson came only once a fortnight and on this morning Arthur Henderson was lay preacher. She stayed at the organ during the sermon because, unlike the plain benches with which the church was furnished, the organist’s chair had a back to it. Henderson was easing into his righteous oratory when he looked out of the window and his eye was caught by a boy trying to walk the fence.

‘Because, brethren,’ he was saying, ‘each of us has his secret temptation. Oh, don’t we all know them! The shoddy tricks we play on our neighbours, the lies we tell, the bad language we use. Oh, you don’t have to go far from this building to hear that. Even the children use it. The innocent mires of whom He said, Suffer little children to come unto Me. And the only way, friends, to stop it is to set an example, to purify our hearts in the blood of the Saviour and follow the true way of life.’ He paused and muttered, ‘Watch yourself, be careful, son…. For He is always with us, friends. By night and by day He watches over us…. Easy now…. Over men at their work and children at their play…. Oh, I knew the little bugger’d do it: he’s fallen off.’

Like most of the congregation, Miss Dane was jolted out of her Sunday-morning piety. Henderson’s periods had soothed her into a sleepy mood of complacency. But that sudden swear-word made her want to accuse him, say: ‘Mr Henderson, please mend your own ways before you have the effrontery to get up and preach to us about purifying our hearts.’ But the accusation was a boomerang. It recalled the subtle, sinuous way she had tempted Don to swear, to give her a secret thrill of rebellion when she had only protested in order to make his indifference conscious and deliberate. And she remembered what followed from her rebellion.

Arthur Henderson stopped and blushed at the congregation’s inadvertent gasps. He fumbled for words and said: ‘I beg your pardon, friends. You see, you see how easy it is. Like what I was saying. The temptation is never far from the surface. Oh, how easy it is, brethren, to slip up. How watchful we must ever be. You see what I mean. Oh, brethren, my example should be a warning for you.’ But the men in the church were grinning and children were whispering to their mothers, ‘Mr Henderson swore’.

For the past month she had palmed off her conscience with her return to regular comfortable habits; besides, the boycott and the strike had taken her mind off her own worries. But now she was shocked to recall the argument she had used to fool herself—that page 251 God had planned it for Don’s sake. Even that was an afterthought; she had sinned before she had found any excuse. She had sinned in the dark, deliberately; and if she hadn’t quite known what she was doing she had preferred not to know: she had deliberately shut down her conscience a few minutes before. She couldn’t even blame Don; hadn’t he asked her was she sure she wanted it? She couldn’t even say that she had loved him. She had been fascinated, magnetized, and it wasn’t the surrender or the unfamiliar and painful physical sensations that thrilled her so much as the defiance, her revolt against herself, herself fouling her habitual beliefs.

It brought back to mind an unusual and disconcerting novel she had read once, in which a tired complacent country took to civil war for the sake of a change, and the peaceable village girls strung up the mayor and revelled in the puffy cowardice of his face, and the soldiers forced their officers to run naked through the ranks while they lashed them with their web-belts: the country, the author said, could never be the same after; after the peace the people had to expiate through suffering a Fascist tyranny. It was a strange and confusing novel. Yet wasn’t she like those people in revolt against themselves, bringing down punishment on their heads? She desperately wished she could turn to someone; she even wished for a second that she was a Catholic and could confess; but then, she was not at all sure from all she had heard that the same thing might not happen to her again in the confessional. And then that terrible fear came again that she didn’t know yet if there might be a baby—but she pushed it out of her mind. It was too terrible. This fear was only God’s way of punishing her.

She forgot where she was and Mr Henderson had to prompt her to play for the last hymn. Leaving the church, she didn’t stay to gossip, she didn’t shake hands with Mr Henderson, who thought she was snubbing him for swearing. She heard him say to one of the men: ‘By God, I made a blue this morning, Ted,’ and he sniggered heartily.

At school, Miss Dane became more impatient with the children. The two classes had been moved into Rogers’s room while hers was being painted. Rogers’s class was now as subdued as hers and no one talked out of turn. Only Peter Herlihy sat sullenly, occasionally poking a face at either of the teachers when they weren’t looking, occasionally hitting another boy with a ruler. Rogers could only hope that what progress Peter had made would survive, like a chrysalis waiting for the spring, till he was on his own again. Now Miss Dane began to pick on Donnie Palmer. She saw him as a potential Don. Perhaps years from now when he had forgotten the existence of page 252 Miss Dune, perhaps he’d take to drink and women. It was a frightening thought that these children would not always be sweet and pouting obedient infants-they would outgrow her, do things she daren’t contemplate, marry and have families. They would drink and go to dances, they would go on strike from work she hadn’t even seen performed. Some of them might even go to gaol. She only had to think of what had happened to some of her own schoolmates. The thought made her work more tense and imperative.

The Monday after the church service she looked at Donnie and began to wonder. Perhaps he had taken his father by surprise…. She looked up his birth date in the register. She wished she had asked them at the hotel how long Don had been married. She asked Mrs Rae. Mrs Rae wasn’t altogether sure: wasn’t it just before the war?

‘Well, it must have been before that, surely. Donnie was born on the 3rd of August 1939.’

‘Well, let me see,’ Mrs Rae said. ‘The Palmers came up here in 1939. I think it was about Easter; I’m not quite sure. Don—that is Mr Palmer senior—he came up first and stayed at the pub when Jimmy Cairns had it, till he got a house. Then Mrs Palmer and the girls came. They lived in the cream house in the back road next door to Belle Hansen’s. Yes, And I remember Don coming up on final leave in his uniform. That was about February 1940. And the baby was born well before then… Myra came up after Don sailed.’

‘It was born in August, I know that.’

‘Well, I’m not sure, but I think Don and Myra got married just before—only a month, I think—before old Don came up here. So that would be about—when was Easter that year? About February or March they must have been married. Oh yes, I remember, Don never said his first wedding anniversary at home. ‘Cause Myra told me. He was somewhere at sea on his way to the Middle East. So it must have been later on in February or nor far into March in 1939. Why?’

‘Oh, nothing. I was just wondering,’ Miss Dane said, thinking, ‘Really, the woman is slow.’ Though, ten minutes later, Mrs Rae said to herself, ‘Funny, I never thought of that before.’

She looked harder on Donnie the next day. Born five months after the wedding. What must that wife of the young man’s have looked like, four months gone and not even married? They evidently hadn’t counted on Donnie. They had thought they could sport under the stars—or more likely in some sordid hotel—without retribution. But they hadn’t got away with it. For here was sin come alive to taunt them, this fair-haired—you might have said—angel, page 253 this boy so unlike his father—was he his father’s? If she was capable of doing that with Don how many other men mightn’t she have had?

Wasn’t it in the Bible that illegitimate children couldn’t go to heaven? This child of six might not be to blame, yet he wasn’t the same as the other children born at a respectable distance from the dead-line of legitimacy. There had to be some discrimination; it wouldn’t be fair to the legitimate. And if it was terrible that the child should suffer eternally for what he had no hand in, what else could you expect God to do? The parents would suffer worse—how foolish she had been to think she could win Don to virtue: he was damned to hell already. No wonder he sinned so much. You couldn’t altogether blame him; he might as well make the most of his time and earn his sentence. She was tempted to pity him but why should she? What about his son? He had to suffer from an act beyond his complicity.

She studied Donnie quietly. Yes, he was his father’s child after all: so much of Don was there in bud. Those easy sensuous lips were implied in that innocent pout; those frank plumbing eyes were there in that open appealing stare that Donnie could win you with. His grandmother was spoiling him, as she had spoiled his father before him, encouraging the cavalier in him. Well, cavalier would meet puritan.

Then that thought hit back. What if she were to have a child from that night? What if every sin of Don’s were to populate? No, no, it was impossible: there must have been other times he had got away with it—why not this time? And she must have known by now. No, it was God’s way of punishing her. It was one of the consequences of her sin to be prickled with retribution like a drunkard waking from sleep in a gorse bush. There was some memory nagging at her that she had put away for future reference, that she had refused to look into at the time. Whatever it was she quickly put it out of her mind.

‘Miss Dane’s crabby today,’ the children said. And when Donnie nudged Peter Herlihy and whispered to him, Miss Dane called him out.

‘Donnie Palmer!’ she said. ‘Whatever do you mean by talking in class? Haven’t I spoken to you before about this? Didn’t Mr Heath punish you for that? Mr Rogers has been too easy with you. He’s far too good-natured I’m sure.’

‘Donnie’s been more restless since he was strapped,’ Rogers said quietly.

‘Yes, I know,’ she said, raising her voice even louder. ‘He’s be- page 254 coming a thoroughly disobedient boy. I think another taste of the strap might do him good.’

‘I don’t think so,’ Rogers said, just as loudly. ‘He doesn’t talk very much now.’

Miss Dane looked as if she could have stamped her foot at Rogers.

‘I think I’ll tell your grandmother on you,’ she said. ‘Would you like that?’

Donnie was already in tears as he came to her table. ‘No,’ he said.

‘Please miss, you don’t live at Donnie’s place any more,’ Peter Herlihy said.

‘Peter, he quiet,’ Rogers said.

‘Peter Herlihy! You hold your tongue!’ Miss Dane said. ‘Now, Donnie, sit down and promise me you’ll be a good boy from now on, I’ve just about had enough of you.’

Donnie went hack to his seat snuffling. Peter was grinning at him. Then Donnie’s snivels turned into a peculiar combination of snuffle and giggle. Peter leaned to him, whispering. Then he rolled some plasticine into a small ball and threw it, secretly, at Miss Dane’s table. She heard the thud and the giggles. Rogers walked over to Peter and said, ‘Build that hut of yours in the bush, out of plasticine. I’d like to see it’. But Miss Dane looked for the cause of the disturbance.

‘Where did this come from?’ she snapped. ‘Who threw this? Was it you, Peter Herlihy?’

A girl said, ‘Yes it was, I saw him, Miss Dane.’

‘Oh, Mr Rogers,’ Miss Dane said. ‘Really your class can be very trying. Peter Herlihy, I’m not going to let Mr Rogers punish you. No, I’m going to punish you myself. Another time, it’ll be Mr Heath who’ll punish you. But I’m going to do it this time. Because Mr Rogers is far too patient with you, far too patient altogether.’

She kept Peter behind after school, when Rogers and the other children had gone. She had only meant to give him a talking to, but when he only looked furtive, answering as he thought she would expect him to, hiding a grin from his face, evidently proud of the honour of being kept behind, it made Miss Dane furious. ‘You’re a wicked boy,’ she said. ‘I have no idea what sort of man you’ll grow into. You’re a wicked, wicked boy. Isn’t that a terrible thing for a child? If you carry on like this you’ll be put in a home. You’ll end up in a Borstal yet, my boy.’

Peter sneaked a look at her eyes and was afraid. He didn’t know it but they had the same secret intense gleam Rogers had noticed in Peter when he first showed him his drawings. ‘Oh, the wickedness page 255 of boys,’ she said. ‘When I think of what you might do when you grow up. You and Donnie and all the boys. I’m going to make a severe example of you.’

She shook him roughly and Peter said. ‘I know something about you anyway.’

‘You’ll hold your tongue and you will not answer me back,’ she said.

‘I saw you one night,’ he said. ‘You were in my hidey-hole with Donnie Palmer’s father.’

‘Peter!’ she cried. ‘You awful boy! You wretch!’ She hardly knew what she was doing. She undid his belt and pulled his pants down to his knees and forced him to lie across her knees while she slap, slap, slapped with a tingling chalk-hard hand and he struggled fiercely, tears spurting on to her rayons so that she felt the damp on her legs. She didn’t know where she got her strength to hold him down, but her energy seemed to flow as fast as his tears while she slapped bare male buttocks and knew from the stinging of her hands how much she hurt him. Then she reached for a ruler and hit him with the flat side half a dozen times. He was bawling loudly and she had to dodge a kick aimed at her face. She stood him up roughly and said, ‘Now make yourself decent’. He pulled up his pants and fixed his belt, crying more softly. He went out the door, then his head appeared and shouted, ‘You bloody bugger!’ and his footsteps defiantly raced down the wood floor of the corridor. But the insult didn’t hurt her. She felt immensely relieved, as from an abscess drained. She noticed with surprise that she was crying herself.