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

1

1

When Rogers went inside the hotel after throwing Heath’s hat away, Mrs Palmer stopped him in the passage. ‘I’d like a little word with you, Paul,’ she said in a voice over-charged with apparently calm moral authority. ‘There’s just one thing I want to know, that’s all. Whose side are you on? Ours or theirs?’

‘I’m with the strikers, Mrs Palmer.’

‘Well, of course,’ she said quietly, ‘people are welcome to turn their coats if they want to. But they can’t expect to be very highly thought of.’

Rogers didn’t say anything.

‘But you kept on drinking,’ she said. ‘You paid sevenpence. What made you change your mind?’

‘Don,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t worried about the boycott, but I can’t stick up for a scab….I pushed him out of the way because I used to be his mate.’

‘It’s a funny sort of friendship that, pushing him around.’

‘I wanted to get him out of the road out of trouble. He’s only got to show his face and he’s a provocation to the strikers now.’

‘They wouldn’t dare touch him. So that’s friendship. They mean him harm and you take their side. What made you change?’

‘There’s one thing I can’t support and that’s a man stepping into another’s man’s job when he’s on strike.’

‘It was only for while the strike lasts. The other man could get his job back tomorrow.’

‘Your son’s helping to break a collective action, and I can’t be with you there. So I’m with the dredge-hands.’

‘Well, Paul, you make your bed, you’ve got to lie on it. There’s one thing I admire and that’s loyalty. Oh, it only takes a bit of trouble to sort out your friends from the passengers. It isn’t often I’m wrong, but this time I was. I thought you were a sticker. I page 257 thought this time you’d have the sense to get down to your job and get ahead in your career.’

‘I’m loyal to my principles,’ he said, resenting having to sound self-righteous.

‘Well, all I can say is they’re funny sort of principles that make you turn on your friends. If there’s one thing I admire it’s gratitude and now I’ve got to stand and see all my kindness thrown back in my face. We took you in and gave you the best of everything—

‘Well, I paid my way, Mrs Palmer.’

‘I never thought we’d ever come to putting a price-tag on kindness, Paul. We gave you better than you’d have got for your money anywhere else. We never made any profit out of you. I never thought you’d throw that up in my face—’

‘I didn’t, Mrs Palmer.’

‘We treated you as one of the family. And you shouldn’t need any telling Palmers is a very tight family. We don’t take anyone into the family like that. Well, I’ve got to admit my judgement was wrong in your case.’

‘You didn’t buy me, Mrs Palmer. I know you’ve treated me well but you didn’t buy my independence.’

‘There you go again. Talking about the money side of it. There’s lots of things that money can’t buy—you’ll have to learn that—’

‘One of them is me,’ he said angrily. He felt that at any minute he would lose control of himself.

‘—and there’s lots of things no money in the world can buy for you and one of them is guts. If there’s one thing I admire it’s guts, Paul, and that’s a thing I’m very sorry to say you seem to be a bit short of. If you haven’t got the guts to stick to your friends how will you ever stick to anyone? Deserting a sinking ship because you find you’re unpopular with a few damn loafing strikers. A straw in the wind has got more principle.’

‘It looks as if I’d better leave, Mrs Palmer.’

‘Don’t think you’re giving notice, because I’m just getting in ahead of you. I’m giving you notice to go. You’ve got a week to go. My God, it’s just as well this happened to show you up in your true colours. Flora can see what you’re made of now. She might ha’ been taken in. We don’t want another Doris-and-Frank kind of marriage.’ She was no longer looking at Rogers; her big glassy eyes were staring straight ahead and she seemed dangerously worked up. ‘Get out of my way,’ she said, and pushed him aside with a contempt that was unfamiliar to him. She staggered to the slide. ‘Dad!’ she called, with panic in her voice, but limply, ‘Get’s a whisky. A double one. For God’s sake.’

page 258

‘Here, Lil, what’s wrong?’ Dad said and, seeing Rogers, called, ‘Paul!’ He gave her the whisky and she gulped it and revived. ‘Support her till I get round to her,’ he said.

‘Oh, get away!’ Mrs Palmer said, and staggering, pushed Rogers away.

‘What’s the trouble? Is it you that’s the cause of the trouble?’ Dad said. ‘Flora! Look here, young chap, if you’re going to try making trouble here about the strike you’ll be flung out and no concern for dignity either. I think you’d better get going.’

‘I just gave him notice,’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘Hold me, Dad.’

‘I can’t see why you take it so badly,’ Rogers said. ‘You don’t own me. I never led you to believe I’d be with you right or wrong. You take too much for granted.’

‘Bottle that up,’ Dad said. ‘Save it for your new friends. You can sell it sixpence a glass.’

Flora came up the passage. ‘Mum! What’s wrong?’ She supported her mother down towards her bedroom. ‘I’m leaving, Flor,’ Rogers said. She looked at him, but didn’t speak. Her look was pleading but bewildered and distant.

He went out on to the road again and walked to the doctor’s. The crowd of youths had dispersed. The doctor didn’t ask him in. They talked at the front door.

‘I’m glad about this,’ the doctor said. ‘I was thinking of coming up to ask you for the last time to think again. It’s not that the strikers need you. Your support can’t make any difference one way or the other. But you need them. If you were to condone young Palmer’s scabbery you’d never live it down.’

‘Yes. I realized that.’

‘It wasn’t before time that you found the courage to break with that family.’

‘She made me feel like a worm all the same. I still feel it. She almost collapsed. I felt it was my fault. It was too.’

‘You should have made your position clear earlier.’

‘The same thing would have happened. Only this was worse.’

‘Well, if you’ve got to shift, where’ll you go? I suppose we could manage.’

‘Thanks, but Jimmy Cairns said he’d take me.’

‘Yes, you’d he better off there. You won’t be looked after so much as at Palmers’. You’ll have to wait on yourself.’

‘I don’t need pampering!’ Roger said indignantly.

‘You’ll be in the thick of it there. It’ll do you good to live with a decent working family. It should correct all those individualist tendencies of yours.’

page 259

The jargon made Rogers wince but he wasn’t game to protest; yet as he walked back he felt as if he had taken a deep breath of clear fresh air. He wouldn’t have to compromise any more, or try to gloze a conflict of principles to ease the moment and grease away the future. But he couldn’t compliment himself on his stand, because he hadn’t made it soon enough.

Flora was at the door of the pub. ‘Oh, Paul,’ she said. ‘Everything’s going wrong. Mum’s in bed and she’s already been crying half the day. I gave her some sleeping tablets. Don’s a mess. I’ve never seen him so irritable. He’s shut himself in his room with some bottles of beer. Dad’s moody. And you’ve made it worse. Oh, why did you have to do it, Paul?’

‘I had to, Flora. I warned you I would. I can’t stay here now.’

‘Don’s not going to the dredge again. Dad said. You could stay.’

‘Not now. Your mother and I had a row. That was why she nearly collapsed. Didn’t your father tell you?’

‘She says things when she’s wild. She doesn’t mean them.’

‘Your father does. It wouldn’t do anyone any good. It’d be just as hard on them as on me.’

‘Where are you going?’

‘To Jimmy Cairns’s.’

‘Mum won’t like that. After you’ve been here. And after we took the pub from him. Oh, Paul, I’m sick of all this. I can’t leave them while they’re like this. Paul, we’re still engaged.’ It was half-question, half-protestation.

Now that he had established his independence again he saw her more clearly, as attractive as ever, and as lovable now that she made no demands on him.

‘Of course,’ he said. ‘It’s up to you, if you want to break it.’

‘You sound as if you don’t care much.’

‘Don’t be silly. It’s no time now to talk about that. I’ve been taking all that for granted.’

‘It’ll blow over soon, Paul. It must. Then we can be happy together again.’

‘Only if we make up our minds to be.’

‘Paul, don’t forget. Leave word with Doris, when you want to see me.’

Next morning, Dad said to Rogers, ‘I hear you’ve arranged to shift already. There’s no hope of Mum getting better while Don’s moping around the house and you’re still here. You don’t need a week’s notice. Here’s your last week’s board back.’ He gave Rogers £2. 10s. 0d.

page 260

‘I don’t want this, Mr Palmer,’ Rogers said. ‘I’m meaning that I want to leave this afternoon.’

Rogers pushed the money back on the slide, but Dad threw it at him again. Rogers picked it up and threw it on the floor of the bar. As he went to school he thought, ‘It would have served him right if I’d taken it for the strike fund.’ But a quarter of an hour later Flora found the money and put it in the till. Her father who had left it on the flour never thought of it again.