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



Mrs Palmer was up on the following day. She was more settled but more subdued and the family were worried about her. Don was helping in the bar. He was moody, and spoke seldom and sourly. At half-past seven in the morning they had heard the party of dredge-hands calling out that he was too windy to show his face. The family felt besieged. They had been our little in the last few weeks. When Mrs Palmer said that evening that she was going up to Doris and Frank’s, Dad said, ‘A bit of fresh air will do you good’. Flora went with her. They didn’t talk much. When they passed anyone in the dark Mrs Palmer was silent in case her voice should be recognized.

‘That’s where old Mrs Seldom lives,’ Flora said. ‘Down there.’

‘That’s Mike Herlihy’s mother-in-law. What I say is she can’t have much go in her or she would have won him round long ago. Fancy a family splitting on itself. It’s not natural. If any mother told me her sons or daughters had turned on her I’d tell her she only had herself to blame. She hadn’t kept in touch with them.’

‘It was Mrs Seldom who turned on Nora.’

‘Oh, this is a mad town, Flora. I wish to God we could get out of it.’

She had brought a bottle of whisky. Doris got glasses. Frank wouldn’t have any.

‘Now, Frank,’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘I’m tired of all this rot about the boycott. Don’t say you’re going to turn on your own.’

‘Frank’s stuck to the boycott all along,’ Doris said.

‘It’s a union decision and I’m sticking by it,’ Frank said. ‘I want to keep my job.’

‘Well, you’re not working now,’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘That’s a fine way of keeping your job, being on strike.’

‘We’ll be back before long,’ Frank said. ‘I’ve got a duty to Doris to keep my job.’

‘Why couldn’t you be like Don? Go on working? You’ve got a page 261 duty to Doris to keep earning. And Doris has got a duty to remember her old mother and father.’

‘Oh, Mum, don’t start more trouble,’ Flora said.

‘Well, I’m having a spot,’ Mum said. ‘And I’m not drinking on my own. You can have a whisky. It’s only beer that the trouble is over.’

‘No,’ Frank said. ‘If it came from the pub it’s black.’

‘Well, I’m having one, Frank,’ Doris said. ‘Not that I want it. But I’ve got to keep Mum company.’

‘You please yourself,’ Frank said. ‘But leave me out of it.’

‘That’s a good girl, Drip,’ Mrs Palmer said.

‘Don’t call her that, Mum, it’s a silly name,’ Frank said.

‘We’ve called her that since she was a baby,’ Mum said. ‘Before you had heard of her. When you were running round this damn town with dirty legs in tom pants.’

‘Mum, stop that,’ Doris said.

‘Don’t get yourself worked up, Mum,’ Flora said.

‘Look what happened to Don anyway,’ Frank said. ‘Scabbing didn’t get him far. You should have known better and kept him at home.’

‘Don’s got a mind of his own,’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘Who’s his old mother to stop him from doing his duty?’

‘I’ll bet you had a hand in sending him to the dredge,’ Frank said.

‘Oh, you, I didn’t come here to talk to you. Doris, I want a word with you. You haven’t been up to see us all through this trouble. You should think of your old Dad more. He’s not well. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Don’t be surprised if something happens to him suddenly. And then you’ll be sorry you never came to see him and it’ll be too late….’

‘Oh, Mum,’ Flora said. ‘Dad’s not ill. It’s you that’s ill.’

‘Well, I’d like to see you too, Doris. We might as well be pushing up damn daisies for all the times you come to see us. It’s not right that Flora and I should have to come up here. We can entertain you at our place.’

‘Can’t we entertain you? What’s wrong with my place?’ Frank said.

‘If you want to know why we haven’t been up,’ Doris said, ‘it’s because every time we come the first thing you do is push a beer down our throats, and Frank said it’d only mean trouble if we refused you.’

‘So you’d turn on your Mum and Dad for the sake of a damn union. My God, Doris, we never brought you up to that line of philosophy.’

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‘I’m married now, Mum,’ Doris said. ‘My first duty is to Frank.’

‘And Frank’s first duty is to you. He should he working right now to pay for your clothes and groceries. You should be enjoying life, drinking our health and us drinking yours, instead of worrying about union decisions. The union won’t let you live. I believe in life.’ She held up her glass, as if toasting.

‘I can’t stick this. I’m off to bed, Doris,’ Frank said, and left them.

Mrs Palmer lifted her head and puffed out of her nose. ‘Doris, I tell you for the second time, remember your poor old parents. We’re in trouble, Doris. Everyone’s turning against us. First Miss Dane walked out. Now Paul’s left us. Why, I thought he was one of the finest young fullahs you’d lay eyes on, just a match for Dopy here….’

‘Oh, Mum, stop it,’ Flora said.

‘Don’t worry, pet. He’s shown his true colours now.’

‘What did he do?’ Doris said.

‘He’s left,’ Flora said. ‘He’s staying at Cairns’s.’

‘Said he couldn’t stick Don working on the dredge,’ Mum said. ‘It took the heart out of me. I had to go to bed.’

‘Paul didn’t bother about the boycott,’ Doris said. ‘Frank said the miners were wild with him. Fancy Jimmy taking him in.’

‘Then he’s got no friends anywhere,’ Mum said. ‘Serve him right. They aren’t his friends. They’re just using him. I’ll bet Jessie Cairns tips him out when the boycott’s over.’

‘Why, Mum?’ Flora asked.

‘They aren’t his friends. He’ll find out. He’s turning on his own class.’

‘Oh, Mum,’ Flora said. ‘We’re all the same in New Zealand. There aren’t any classes.’

‘Doris, I’m telling you,’ Mum said, ‘it’s time we saw more of you. We’d like some recognition, to show that everyone’s not against us. Don’s moping round looking sick on it.’

‘Well, I’ve no sympathy with Don for what he did, Mum.’

‘Doris, you’re not going to turn on your own brother?’

‘Frank’s right. I know you too well. You made him do it.’

‘Oh, Frank, Frank. Frank this, Frank that! Forget that damn union slave of a snarling husband you got hold of when your eyes must ha’ been out of order!’

‘Now, Mum, don’t come up here to start trouble.’

‘I am going to make trouble, Doris. It’s time you came home to us. Forget that surly rough, that bloody guttersnipe. What sort of a home did he come from?’

‘Stop it, Mum! Stop it!’ Doris said.

page 263

‘Mum!’ Flora said.

‘What do you stick to him for?’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘How many babies has he given you, tell me that?’

‘Mum!’ Doris screamed and ran to her mother and slapped her face. ‘You know very well. You know very well it’s not Frank’s fault I can’t have any. That’s a dirty thing to say. My own mother!’

Flora separated them. Mrs Palmer had sagged and was crying, ‘My own daughter slapped my face,’ she said. ‘My own Drip to hit her Mum on the face.’

‘Doris, you shouldn’t have done it,’ Flora said.

‘Well, she shouldn’t have said what she did!’ Doris said. ‘I’d do it again if she said it again.’

Frank came out in his pyjamas. ‘Here, what’s all the barney about?’

Doris said, ‘Oh, we’ve been scrapping. Now, no more of that, Mum. I won’t stand it. I think you’d better go home.’

‘Give us another whisky, pet,’ Mum said. Flora poured a glass.

‘No. No more. You’ve had enough tonight,’ Frank said. ‘That’s what’s making you so bitchy.’

‘He won’t even let me drink my own whisky,’ she whimpered; and Doris said, ‘Let her have it, Frank. It’s small consolation.’

‘Come on, Mum, it’s time you were home in bed,’ Frank said.

‘She’ll hardly be able to walk home,’ Flora said. ‘Let her rest for a while.’

Mum sat brooding. After a while she said, ‘I never thought our little Drip would turn on her mother. Someone’s been poisoning you against us, and I know who that someone is. You, Lindsay! You poisoned Drip against us!’

‘Mum!’ Flora said.

‘Oh, don’t be silly,’ Frank said. ‘And don’t call her Drip.’

‘You keep your damn sticky beak out of our family affairs,’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘Our private family affairs. We were a good family till you all grew up and started getting notions. Don found out his old Mum and Dad were worth twenty Myras. And Doris’ll find out yet how much good to her you are!’

‘Mum, go easy,’ Flora said. ‘You’ll be getting yourself worked up again.’

‘Loafer! Loafer!’ Mrs Palmer said, standing up. ‘My daughter married a loafer!’

‘You’ll have to take her home, Flora,’ Frank said. ‘The whisky’s gone to her head.’

‘Mum,’ Flora said, ‘You be careful or I’ll lose my temper too.’

‘You didn’t even give me any grand-children. You couldn’t do page 264 that for your mother-in-law. You’re saving up till I’m out of the way feeding the daisy-roots, to do me out of the rightful benefits of my old age.’

‘Stop it,’ Frank said. He held the heel of his hand poised as if for a rabbit-punch. ‘Take her home, Flora,’ he said. ‘We can’t have her carrying on like this all night.’

‘I’ll stay and make your night miserable,’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘I’ll be the prick of your conscience. If Don couldn’t go to work without the dredgies yapping at his heels I won’t let you stay on strike without putting a sting in your tail.’

‘Come on, Mum,’ Flora said and pulled at her arm.

‘Now, don’t you start, Dopy,’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘Or I’ll have no one left to stick up for me.’

‘I’ve never seen her like this before,’ Doris said. ‘She can’t walk home. We’ll have to get a car. Would the doctor take her home in his car?’

She went into the house next door and phoned Dad. Dad said he wasn’t going to be under any obligation to the doctor. The policeman didn’t have a car. There was a taxi in the town, but he doubted if the owner would agree because of the boycott and he wouldn’t give him the chance of refusing. He said he would ring Rae and ask Miss Dane to drive up for Mrs Palmer.

Dad and Don waited outside the hotel as Miss Dane drove up. ‘Good evening,’ she said pertly, ‘Whatever is the trouble, Mr Palmer?’

‘Mum’s in a bad way,’ Dad said. ‘I’ll come with you.’

‘Are you coming too, Mr Palmer?’ she said coldly to Don. She saw with satisfaction how dispirited he looked. He looked about him to see if anyone was coming.

‘If you need me, Dad.’

‘Flora’s there. There won’t be room in the car,’ Dad said.

‘I hear you’re on strike yourself,’ Miss Dane said, already half-relenting her cattiness. Don didn’t answer.

‘Oh, really, Mrs Palmer,’ Miss Dane said as they helped Mum into the car. ‘You do hit the bottle too much.’

‘Mum only had three whiskies, Miss Dane,’ Flora said. ‘She’s run down with worry. Oh, Dad, she said some awful things to Doris. I think I ought to stay with Doris for the night.’

‘It’d be better to come home and look after Mum,’ Dad said.

‘Don’t you walk out on me too,’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘Everyone’s walking out on Mum. Miss Dane and Paul.’

‘Now, Lil,’ Dad said. ‘Miss Dane was good enough to come out on a frosty night to drive you home.’

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‘Don’t take any notice of me,’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘I get like this occasionally, just for the fun of it. So would you if everyone walked out on you. Drip slapped my face, Dad. Flora, I left the whisky behind. Go back and get it, there’s a good girl.’