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

page 270

1

Heath stopped Rogers in the school corridor the morning after Rogers had thrown his hat away. ‘Would you come into my office, Mr Rogers?’ he asked. ‘I’ve got to have a word with you.’

Inside the office he said, ‘There’s no doubt you thought yourself very clever last night, showing off in front of the crowd. The things a man will do for popularity.’

‘I did you a favour, Mr Heath,’ Rogers said. ‘Some of those lads were ganging up to attack you.’

‘A funny sort of favour, Mr Rogers, making a fool of a man. They wouldn’t have dared to attack me.’

‘I heard them planning it. In another minute they’d have been at you.’

‘Really, Mr Rogers, do you think I’m frightened of a few larrikins from a coal-mine? It’s a pity they didn’t attack me. They’d have been in trouble then. I’d have had them up for assault.’

‘That’s what I was trying to prevent.’

‘So you’re on their side now. Well, I’ve been called many names, Mr Rogers, but turncoat’s not one of them.’

‘You were provoking those lads, and the men too,’ Rogers said. ‘How can you call them rabble? Who are you to call them rabble?’

‘I was giving them a lesson on their place in society,’ Heath said.

‘They don’t seem to know it. Pleasing themselves whether they’ll go to work or not. What would happen if I thought I’d stay home when I felt like it? What would those men say if we went on strike and their children weren’t getting the education they’re entitled to?’

‘The men are striking for a purpose. If we had a purpose in a strike I think they’d sympathize with us.’

‘Purpose you call it! To cheat a publican out of a penny profit. You didn’t think much of the purpose yourself a few days ago.’

‘I’m not condoning one man scabbing when other men are on strike.’

‘Well, you’re not so pally with your precious young Palmer any page 271 more. Perhaps you’ll allow me to punish his son now when he needs it?’

‘I’m not arguing about that, Mr Heath. I tell you I saved the peace last night.’

‘I could have had you up for assault. I saw the constable again this morning.’

‘Mr Rae said he was letting it go.’

‘Yes, and he’s not doing his duty properly. Only because he’s got so much else on his hands. But there’ll be extra police up here soon, and you’d better not try anything like that again. And I warn you, I’m gunning for you now, Mr Rogers. I’ll do everything I can to get you removed from this school and no holds barred. No one’s going to make a fool of me and get away with it.’

‘How will you do that?’

‘I’ll turn the teachers against you, the children, the parents. I’ll complain to the committee—’

‘It wouldn’t be the first time.’

‘How do you know that?’

‘You warned me yourself. And you ought to know there’s not many secrets in this town.’

‘Some of your friends have been talking. Well, I have friends on the committee too. And then there’s the Board. I won’t have a good word to say for you when the inspectors come.’

‘At least you’re honest,’ Rogers said, unconvinced of the threat. ‘But I wouldn’t give you many marks for fairness.’

‘I was fair for long enough. It’s war now. All’s fair in love and war.’

With the superiority of a young man happily in love, who cannot believe older people were ever in love, he said, ‘I wonder how much you know about love.’

‘Get out!’ Heath shouted. He took this as a reference to his strained relations with his wife. How did Rogers know? But Rogers didn’t know. He only knew that from now on he would have to be careful in his dealings with Heath. The first casualty of the cold war would be Peter Herlihy. It would be as much as he could do in the meantime to protect him from Heath.

Heath kept coming into the classroom without any pretexts. ‘Excuse me, Miss Dane,’ he would say, ‘just carry on,’ and without apology or introduction would watch Rogers teach, ask children to let him see their printing, test them at reading, see if the register was marked. Every day for three days he asked for Peter Herlihy, but Peter Herlihy wasn’t there. He hadn’t appeared at school since the afternoon Miss Dane slapped him. Rogers asked the children did they know if he was ill. A boy said no, he wasn’t because he’d page 272 seen him having a ride on the grocer’s van. ‘I’ve let him down,’ Rogers thought. Peter had lost faith in him. He should have known from that day when he said his father was setting a trap for him. He should have tried to get his confidence again. But how could he with Miss Dane nagging at him? To regenerate a boy like that you needed a special environment where his impulses to destruction would peter out for lack of resistance. This boy thrived on resistance. God knew he got enough of it. But was it enough to remove the resistance? You had to supply alternative activity. They were the same impulses whether they chose opposition or co-operation. They couldn’t just peter our unless the boy himself was to die. But how could you lead him to co-operate when every adult bullied him? That was the fallacy of his treatment: he had tried to neutralize Peter’s impulses when he should have tried to convert them. He wished he had never begun the treatment. How could he have foreseen the consequences of his actions? But then what right had he to interfere unless he could have predicted the consequences? Yet he couldn’t have left Peter as he was: he had to do something. And, until the painters came, Peter had been improving.

The third morning that Heath inquired for Peter, Miss Dane said, ‘I must say the room is a lot more peaceful without him. Really he was most insulting to me the other day. I’m afraid I was rather severe on him.’

‘That’s the way,’ Heath said. ‘He’s had more than enough of his own way with Mr Rogers.’

‘I’m wondering if that’s why he’s staying away from school,’ she said. ‘Do you think his parents know? They haven’t complained, have they?’

‘I’m not going to stand any more parents interfering with school discipline,’ Heath said. ‘That’s the trouble with this town. Even the parents don’t understand discipline. I’d like to see martial law in this town.’

‘Really, Mr Heath, you’re not serious? We’re overcrowded now, with three extra constables. I’m having to sleep in Mrs Rae’s room.’

‘Well, if they’re here to protect Herlihy, we’ll have to see that he sends his boy to school. If he stays away long enough I’ll report truancy. There’s nothing wrong with the boy. Some of my class saw him with his father on the dredge yesterday after school.’

‘Then perhaps his parents do know. I hope they’re not going to complain.’

‘I’ll do nothing just yet,’ Heath said. ‘It’d do that boy good to be dealt with by the law. Then I’ll put him up for truancy.’

‘But his father will have to pay the fine.’

page 273

‘It’ll teach his father to send the boy to school. Herlihy might be the only man working at the dredge, but he’s got to learn to bring that boy up the same way. Otherwise he’ll just be a law to himself like the strikers.’

Rogers overheard this conversation. He made up his mind to try to get Peter back to school. That evening he went to see Mike Herlihy. As he approached the house he heard a gentle rustle in the scrub and an intermittent scuttle of feet. ‘Is that you Peter?’ he called into the dark. There was no answer, only an intense silence. He was still unused to the heaviness of the silence since the dredge stopped working. But there was a slight movement, the snapping of a twig and a rustle of leaves as from a sudden withdrawal. ‘Peter!’ he called. ‘Come on out. I know you’re there.’ Then he saw a pale patch in the leaves, and knew it was Peter’s face watching him. There was a suppressed snigger. ‘I won’t bite you, Peter,’ he said. ‘I want to talk to you.’

Peter didn’t move. ‘I’m not coming back to school again.’ he said.

‘Why not?’

‘’Cause it’s mad. You all growl at me. You’re just the same as Miss Dane. You only pretend you’re not crabby.’

‘We’ll be back in our own room in a week. Miss Dane won’t growl at you then.’

‘Mr Heath’ll come in and growl. You never say anything when they do. You should fight them.’

‘I can’t fight them, Peter.’

‘You’re scared of them. I wouldn’t be scared of Miss Dane if I was as big as you. I’d hit her. I’d make her take her pants down and I’d put her across my knees and I’d hit her behind with a ruler.’

‘Oh Peter, don’t be silly. Is that a thing to be proud of? You can fight boys, you don’t need to fight girls.’

‘She did that to me.’

‘When?’

‘That day I threw the plasticine at her.’

‘That’s why you didn’t come back to school?’

‘I’m not coming back either. They won’t find me. I hide. No one knows my hidey-hole.’

‘You shouldn’t have thrown the plasticine, Peter.’

‘I’m glad I did. I told her that secret.’

‘What secret?’

‘The one you said not to tell. About the man and lady that did that thing in the scrub. They were in my hidey-hole. The man burnt my drawing. I’ve found another hidey-hole now. It’s a better one. They won’t find it. You don’t know where it is.’

page 274

‘I don’t want to know. You keep it a secret. Why did you tell Miss Dane your secret? I thought you didn’t like her.’

‘’Cause it was her. It was her and Donnie Palmer’s father that were in my hidey-hole.’

‘Peter! Is that true?’

‘Yes, and I told her and she made me take my pants off and she hit me on the behind. I’m glad I told her too.’

‘Well, you’re not to tell anyone else, understand, Peter? You have to keep that to yourself. Don’t tell anyone. Or you’ll get mixed up in all sorts of trouble.’

‘You should’ve stopped her,’ Peter said. ‘You shouldn’t ‘ve let her hit me.’

‘I wasn’t there.’

‘When she said she wasn’t goin’ to let you punish me she was goin’ to do it herself, you should ‘a’ said, “No! No! Miss Dane. Peter’s in my class. You be quiet or I’ll hit you!” That’s what you could ‘a’ said.’

‘I thought she’d only growl at you.’

‘You only pretended to he kind to me. You never stuck up for me when Heath growled at me. You didn’t stop old Ma Hansen giving me the strap. You let Miss Dane nag-nag-nag at me all day and hit me. You’re not fair.’

‘I’ll try to do better next time, Peter. Come back to school and you’ll see.’

‘No.’

‘I’ll have to see your father, Peter. He doesn’t know you’re wagging school.’

‘Don’t you!’

‘Your father won’t growl at you.’

‘Mum will.’

‘They might growl a little now. If you stay away longer they’ll growl a lot more. Then the policeman will come, not me.’

‘If you tell my father I’ll tell that secret.’

‘Don’t talk silly, Peter. If you tell that secret you’ll be hurting yourself, not me.’

‘I’ll say it was you. Miss Dane and you.’

‘Don’t be mad, Peter. No one would believe you.’

‘I’ll say it was you and the kids like Donnie Palmer said to you that time, and you got wild.’

‘No one would believe you, Peter. I’m going up to your place now.’

‘Then Mr Heath’ll give you the strap and the policeman’ll take you to gaol.’

page 275

‘Peter!’ he called. ‘Come here.’ But there was a rustle of leaves, a few soft footsteps and Peter wasn’t there; he was hidden somewhere in his new retreat.’

There was a young policeman outside Herlihy’s house. He stopped Rogers. ‘What is it you want?’ he said.

‘I want to see Mr Herlihy.’

‘What about?’

‘That’s my business.’

‘It’s not in connection with the strike, is it?’

‘No.’

‘What’s your job?’

‘I’m a teacher at the school.’

‘You can go in then. Excuse me being so strict, but we’ve had instructions. We’re frightened some of them might try to get at Herlihy.’

‘I don’t think you know this town very well,’ Rogers said.

‘You’d be surprised. They put a brick through Rae’s window in the last lot of trouble here. They’ll stop at nothing, these bloody miners, you know. I’m not taking any chances anyway.’

‘What made you join the police force, anyway?’ Rogers asked.

‘Well, I reckoned New Zealand’s a peaceable country and a chap’d never be in any trouble except looking up drunks that got a bit nasty. I’m a peaceable man m’self, and I’m not one to go badgering my own. But, bugger me, these bloody miners and dredgies come along and spoil it. If it wasn’t for them we cops’d be on peaceable terms with everyone. If they’re going to knock people about they deserve to be knocked about. And no one’ll enjoy doing it more than I will either.’

‘Perverse people,’ Rogers said, ‘spoiling your soft job.’

‘There’s nothing too soft about it,’ the policeman said with a slight whine. ‘You ought to try it yourself and see.’

Rogers knocked on the door and it half-opened. Nora Herlihy’s face peered intently at him. ‘Is Mr Herlihy home?’ he said.

She continued to stare at him. ‘What were you wanting?’ she asked.

He hesitated: he did not want to talk by her doorstep. ‘It’s about Peter,’ he said. ‘I’m his teacher.’

‘What’s the little bugger done now?’ she asked.

‘Is that for me, Nora?’ a sour voice called. ‘Bring him in, whoever he is. Don’t leave him standing out in the frost.’

She looked at his feet and he was careful to wipe them on the mat. She did not offer to take his overcoat. She took her place by the stove and watched him from over her shoulder. They did not offer him a seat.

page 276

‘Oh, it’s you,’ Mike said. He was bleary and sodden from beer and his eyes were more sullen and shifty than usual. ‘What’s the trouble?’

‘No trouble really,’ Rogers said. ‘I thought I ought to let you know Peter hasn’t been to school for three days.’

‘The little brat,’ Nora said. ‘Where does he get to? He takes his bag with him every morning.’

‘I believe he was riding with the grocer one day,’ Rogers said.

‘You’re a bit late, young fullah,’ Mike said. ‘Heath told me this afternoon in the pub.’

‘Why didn’t you speak to him?’ Nora demanded. ‘You should have had it out with him at tea-time.’

‘It’s time the boy had some peace,’ Mike said. ‘There’s too many people nagging at him as it is. There’s no need for you to be on his tail like a dog worrying sheep.’ He addressed this last remark to Rogers.

‘I’m not,’ Rogers said. ‘Peter’s a good kid. He’s no trouble if you understand him.’

‘Understand him!’ Nora said. ‘The devil himself wouldn’t understand him.’

‘You seem to know a lot about kids for one that hasn’t any himself,’ Mike said.

‘I don’t know a lot,’ Rogers said. ‘But I like to encourage them, not to restrain them.’

‘You encourage that boy and you’ll find you’ve encouraged just a bit more than you can handle,’ Nora said. ‘You remember my words now.’ She turned and muttered, ‘Bloody teachers they have nowadays.’ She screamed, ‘I don’t want him going to school to learn to be cheeky!’

‘Peter’s got a lot more talent than anyone in the class,’ Rogers said.

‘He’s got a talent for getting into trouble,’ Nora said. She turned back to the stove.

‘I like him,’ Rogers said. ‘I’d like to see all his vitality turned to good instead of nastiness.’

‘Oh, so you like him, do you?’ Mike said. ‘So he must be good if you like him. It’ll be more than you can do to turn evil to good. When anyone starts talking like that I tell him to look at the evil in his own heart.’

‘More of his bloody Doolan nonsense,’ Nora said.

‘That’s no excuse to give up trying,’ Rogers said.

‘Why did you come here then?’ Mike said, ‘If you say you’re not nagging at the kid?’

page 277

‘Because if I hadn’t come to warn you, Heath was going to report him for truancy.’

‘Ah, that’s caught you out!’ Nora said, turning round. ‘Liar! You reckoned Heath told you Peter was wagging school. He hadn’t told you at all. You just wouldn’t let on to the schoolteacher that you didn’t know.’

Herlihy snarled.

‘He’d have had the policeman round,’ Rogers said.

‘We don’t want to fall out with Rae,’ Nora screamed. ‘Not at a time like this. I’ll make sure the little bugger goes to school tomorrow.’

Mike didn’t comment. Rogers was awkward standing. There was no third chair or he would have helped himself. He noticed the inhuman tidiness of the kitchen. He wanted to plead with them to treat Peter better but where could he start?—They would resent his interference, and Nora might even be harder on the boy if he did. He wondered how Mike felt now about the strike.

‘Mr Herlihy,’ he said, ‘why can’t you give up the beer for a few days? The strike’d end then and you wouldn’t have to rely on police protection. The publicans’d be beaten then and they’d give in, You’d get your beer cheaper.’

He was surprised that it was Nora who answered him. ‘You keep your sticky beak out of this,’ she screamed. ‘We’re not giving in to any damn union.’

‘Who are you to talk?’ Mike said. ‘You used to be very thick with the Palmers yourself once. I seem to remember seeing you coughing up sevenpence in the bar. Or was it my eyesight troubling me?’

‘I was wrong,’ Rogers said. ‘They had no right to send Don to the dredge.’

‘You mean I have no right to be working, is that it?’

‘You’re not doing yourself any good,’ Rogers said.

‘You mean I have no right to be working, yes or no?’

‘Frankly, I do mean that.’

‘Then you can get out!’ Nora screamed. ‘Go back to your bloody schoolbooks and keep your nose in your own business.’

There was a knock and the door opened. ‘Everything all right?’ the policeman asked. ‘I heard your voices raised.’

‘Yes, we’re all right,’ Mike said in a surly way.

‘Tell this schoolteacher to get out and leave us in peace,’ Nora said.

‘I’m just going,’ Rogers said. The policeman watched him with a close puzzled look as he held the door open for him.