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 256



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.


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.’

page 262

‘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.’

page 265

‘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.’


Mrs Palmer was herself again the next morning. Flora was surprised to find her up before anyone else, bustling with the breakfast in the kitchen. She served the two remaining boarders with unusual cheerfulness; clerks at the post office and the mine office—tee- totallers both. She was glad to have the work to do for them.

Flora told Don about her mother’s performance the night before.

‘Mum isn’t fair,’ she said. ‘She said some rotten things to Doris.’

‘Doris shouldn’t have hit her,’ Don said.

‘I might have done the same myself if she had said that to me. About not having babies. She knows very well it’s not Frank’s fault.’

‘Mum’s not well these days. You can’t blame her for going over the edge.’

‘You should talk, Don. Look what she made you do. She made you look a fool in front of the dredge-hands.’

‘If you can buck Mum’s will, Flora, you’re stronger than I am. She’s the strongest-willed woman I know.’

‘Well, it’s not fair if she expects to get her own way with everyone. Other people have got wills too. What about Myra? She didn’t get a fair deal.’

‘Forget Myra. Don’t open old wounds, Flora. I’ll never speak to her again. She tried to make trouble between me and Mum.’

‘Well, you had to make the choice, Don.’

‘We could have all lived together and been happy. There was no need to make a battle out of it.’

‘I’m beginning to wonder about that, Don.’

‘Well, I don’t blame Doris for sticking up for herself. But I’ll never fight Mum. And if anyone’s to settle these troubles it’s Dad. You shouldn’t worry about it. Doris isn’t your concern.’

‘It might be my concern, too. What if I wanted to get married? I’d want to be free.’

‘You don’t mean you’re going to walk out on us for Paul, do you? He’s caused enough trouble in this house. He hasn’t got a friend in the world now.’

page 266

Flora didn’t answer.

That evening she knocked on Jimmy Cairns’s door. Russell Cairns answered. ‘It’s the girl of Palmer,’ he called.

‘Well, Flora,’ Jessie Cairns said. ‘It’s a surprise seeing you.’

‘I know what you want,’ Jimmy called. ‘You want me to buy the pub back because you’re losing on it. I can’t afford it.’

‘Is Paul in?’ Flora said.

‘Come in then and sit down,’ Jessie said. ‘He’s helping the kids with their homework. I don’t know what Heath’d say if he knew. I said he’d need to do it to make up for Heath giving Dick the strap for calling him scab. I’m bringing that up at the committee meeting tomorrow too.’

Russell was sitting on the floor in front of the coal stove saying his reading. Rogers was sitting at the table helping Dick with his arithmetic. Two girls, younger than Dick, were squabbling over possession of a pencil.

‘Hullo, Flora,’ Rogers said. ‘You’ve caught me working.’

‘It should be interesting, Paul,’ she said. ‘You make me jealous, being with children all the time.’

‘You try it for a while,’ he said. ‘Especially with little ruffians like these ones.’

‘Here, you,’ Jessie said. ‘Don’t you start insulting our kids. They’re the apples of my eye.’

‘You never said that when I wanted to go to the pictures last week,’ Dick said.

‘I am not a ruffian,’ one of the girls said.

‘Now, Betty, I only meant the boys,’ Rogers said.

‘He called me a ruffian. I know a name to call him,’ Dick said. ‘I can too. Mr Heath gave me the strap for it.’

‘Now son. Cut that out,’ Jimmy said. ‘We’ve had enough of that. Your teacher’s on our side now.’

‘He’s not my teacher.’

‘Well, he’s one of the teachers. You can show a bit of respect for him anyway.’

‘I’d like to have a chat with you, Paul,’ Flora said.

‘Okay, Flora,’ Rogers said, getting up from his chair.

‘Take a seat, Flora,’ Jessie said. ‘Here, Betty, get up and let Flora sit down.’

‘I won’t stay long,’ Flora said. ‘I’ll stand.’

‘Old Don didn’t send you, did he, Flora?’ Jimmy asked. ‘Or your mother?’

‘No, Mr Cairns,’ she said. ‘They don’t know I’m here.’

‘Well, look,’ Jessie said, ‘you won’t get much of a chance to talk page 267 here with this gang around. They’ve got cars as wide as the pit-mouth, and tongues as long as the main road.’

‘We have not,’ said Betty. ‘We can keep secrets.’

‘Well, you won’t get a chance,’ Rogers said. ‘We’ll go for a walk instead.’

‘Go into the front room if you like,’ Jessie said. ‘There’s no fire. Dick can make a fire for you.’

‘No, thanks, I’d just as soon have a walk,’ Flora said.

‘You might run into Winnie,’ Jessie said. ‘She’s out somewhere with Arty Nicholson.’

It was a dull night threatening rain. The mist was low on the hills but you couldn’t see much in the dark. There was already a fine drizzle in the air.

‘I’m glad you left, now, Paul,’ Flora said.

‘Why?’ he asked.

‘Mum gets too much of her own way,’ she said. ‘We went to Doris’s last night. She tried to turn Doris against Frank. It’s not right. She said something Doris’ll hardly forgive her for.’


‘I shouldn’t tell you. Can you keep it to yourself?’

‘Course. If you think I ought to know.’

‘Doris can’t have children. Mum said Frank was too mean to give her any.’

‘Oh, surely?’

‘Doris slapped her face. Mum broke up. We had to get Miss Dane to drive her home in her car.’

‘What did Don think?’

‘Don lets Mum rule him. He could have been happily married if he’d had more independence…. Paul, Doris and Frank are happy enough, even without children. I’ve thought over what you said the other afternoon, in the wash-house. I want to go ahead with it, Paul. I don’t care what happens. I feel terrible doing this, behind Mum and Dad’s back, just when they’re in trouble. But I’ve got to. They think I’ve broken off the engagement now. They didn’t say so. They just take it for granted.’

‘It’s hard for you, Flora…. But don’t worry about it. Because you know I’ll do everything I can for you.’

‘There’s something else, Paul, you mustn’t tell anyone. I think Dad’s thinking of moving. He’s looking for another pub, away from the Coast. He didn’t say anything. But I can tell. If they go, Paul, I’m not going with them. I’ve had to face it, Paul. I can’t spend all my life with my parents. I’ve got to think of my own future. I want a home of my own, too.’

page 268

‘We’ll manage together, Flora. Whatever happens.’

‘Oh Paul, I know I’ve been silly. I shut my eyes to a lot of things…. You don’t know how it hurts me, Mum and Dad have been everything to me, before I started with you.’

‘Don’t think twice about it, Flora. Once you’ve made your mind up, you’ll have to stick to it. But there’s something else, Flora.’


‘You’ve lived such a sheltered life. There’s so much you don’t understand. I talked politics to you. I thought you understood. But I didn’t even understand, myself. It was just talk. Airing opinions that were a bit different. It was the blind leading the blind. I’ve learnt now, you’ve got to stick by working people. Flora, all these troubles you and I have had, they might happen all over again. If you leave home and we marry, you won’t be leading the same kind of life you were used to….’

‘I don’t care about that, Paul.’

‘There’ll be other occasions in the Flat. Disputes and strikes. All sorts of political issues. Your whole upbringing will make you see things different from the way I see them. You’ve got to know what you’re letting yourself in for.’

‘I don’t pretend that I understand these things, Paul. I’ll just have to trust you on them.’

‘That’s not good enough, though, I’ll explain and explain. I don’t ask you to swallow everything I say just because I say it. I mean, we don’t want to have arguments later on. You know what I mean?’

‘Doris managed. She doesn’t have any arguments with Frank. The only time they argue is when they see Mum.’

They stood together by wet blackberry bushes at the side of the road for several minutes. Rogers put his arms tenderly around this girl who had taken the hardest decision of her life. It wasn’t like the night when they stood overlooking the creek and Peter Herlihy was foxing them, when they had been so deeply confident and happy. Now they saw each other as two independent people, needing each other if they wanted to establish their independence and self-respect so that they could live fruitfully among their neighbours. The night was silent without the dredge; only an occasional drip from a blackberry leaf. He saw the vitality in her glossy hair tinily beaded with mist, in the clear skin of her tender ripening features and her frank devoted glistening eyes. Her face looked stronger, now that she had made up her mind. ‘I won’t let you down,’ he said. She felt his strength and knew then that with him she could face most things, and her older problems dwindled. They felt a strong physical desire for each other, but neither wanted to act on it, not page 269 yet. As if he knew what she was thinking, Rogers said, ‘It’s too wet. Anyway, there’ll be hundreds of other days.’ Flora smiled a full smile that seemed to come from deep inside her.

‘I’ll have to get back,’ she said. ‘Or they’ll be wondering where I am.’

When they got back, Flora’s face was glowing, the glow emphasized by the wet, and by the mist on her hair like dew on a spider web. Rogers, too, though he didn’t know it, was animated. The children were in bed.

‘Here, you two, have you been drinking?’ Jessie asked. ‘You look so fresh, both of you.’

‘Ah, Flora sneaked him up home for a couple of sevenpennies,’ Jimmy said. ‘You have to watch those Palmers. All publicans are the same.’

‘We’ve only been for a walk,’ Rogers said.

‘Stretching our legs,’ Flora said.

‘Ah, what it is to be young,’ Jimmy said. ‘Do you remember, Jessie, that pozzy we had under the birch at the top of old Ned Seldom’s? He came out one night with a stick. He thought it was Mike Herlihy. You should have seen his face when he found it was us.’

‘The names he called us,’ Jessie said. ‘It makes me feel old to think of it. Will you have a cup of tea, Flora?’

‘I never used to drink tea at this time,’ Jimmy said.

‘He never used to be home at this time, that’s why,’ Jessie said. ‘He was always up at your pub before the boycott, Flora.’

‘We had a pozzy in the scrub where the new school is,’ Jimmy said. ‘Money was short then. You couldn’t take your girl to the pictures. You made do with the entertainment nature gave you.’

‘Here, don’t tell everyone,’ Jessie said. ‘Flora’s blushing.’

‘So is Paul,’ Jimmy said. ‘Anybody’d think they didn’t know what it was.’

Flora and Rogers began to laugh. There were tears in his eyes as he laughed.