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 278


At first Mike Herlihy didn’t believe it. He was not a man who tried to read other people, yet Rogers hadn’t seemed the man one would have suspected was capable of it. But it was just as inconceivable that his son could think up such an accusation without some prompting from fact. Peter had come home late that night. His mother had gone to bed; she usually went to bed early. His sandals were wet with dew and he was shivering from the cold night air. He knelt by the stove to warm himself while his father opened the grate and poked the coal into a blaze.

‘Why haven’t you been going to school?’ Mike said.

‘I have,’ Peter said. ‘I have so. I was there every day.’

‘Now don’t start lying to me,’ Mike said. ‘Your teacher’s just been to see me about it.’

Peter gave him a hunted look. His lips quivered—from the cold, Mike thought. ‘I was frightened,’ Peter said. ‘I was frightened of the teacher.’

Mike gave a conciliatory sneer. He did not like arguing with his son but he was even more afraid of demonstrating sympathy. ‘What teacher?’ he asked. ‘Rogers?’

Peter trimmed his argument from an instinctive desire to appease his father by collaboration. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes. He growls at me.’

To surmount his resistance to expressing any attitude to his son, either of scorn or affection, Mike had to force himself. ‘You can’t tell me you’re frightened of a bit of growling.’

‘He hits me too,’ Peter said. He was afraid of his father’s taciturnity. He now felt that his father’s goodwill stood or fell by his ability to justify his story.

‘He didn’t talk like that,’ Mike said. ‘He sounded as if he’s got a lot of time for you.’ He couldn’t exclude a sneer.

‘Oh, he has not,’ Peter said. ‘He growls at me. He tells me things too.’

‘What sort of things?’

‘Secrets. He tells me secrets and I’m not allowed to tell anyone.’

‘What sort of secrets?’

‘He told me a story about a man and a lady in the scrub. It was Miss Dane and Donnie Palmer’s father. And Miss Dane hit me. It was all Mr Rogers’s fault. He could have stopped her.’

‘You’re making it up.’

‘I am not. He did so tell me.’

page 279

Mike became more articulate. ‘What did he tell you that for? It wasn’t true?’

Peter continued steering his course by his father’s assumptions. ‘No, it wasn’t true. Mr Rogers tells lies.’

‘What did he tell you that for?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘What is it you’re scared of then?’

‘Mr Rogers. He went into the scrub too. Just before. He talked to me in the scrub. He said, “Show me your hidey-hole, Peter.”’

‘What are you talking about, son?’

‘He did so. He followed me into the bushes. I was scared.’

‘Is that why you’re so late home?’

‘Yes. I’ve been hiding. I thought he’d find me.’

‘What did he do?’ Mike asked quickly.

‘He caught me,’ Peter said. ‘He made me take down my pants. He tried to put me across his knees but I kicked. And he hit me with a ruler. He slapped me hard. He made me cry. Dad,’ he said, ‘Dad, don’t let me go to school tomorrow.’

‘I thought you said you ran away from him,’ Mike said.

‘I did. I struggled and got away and I hid in my hidey-hole and he couldn’t find me.’

Mike questioned him more intently and more fiercely, and Peter improvised just as fiercely with scraps of fantasy and memory taken from what Rogers had told him, from his memory of Donnie Palmer’s story and from his humiliation on Miss Dane’s knees. He saw quickly that his father was probing for proof of some guilty act and he supplied what he thought was wanted without himself realizing what act it was or why his father should look for it. He didn’t actually allege what his father suspected because he had never heard of it, but his answers hinted at it, and he rose in the end, surprised that his father had been so easily satisfied with his story. Yet at the beginning he hadn’t counted on having to justify at such length or with such energy his original lie.

Mike didn’t tell Nora. Even if he had wanted to he would have found it difficult to phrase his suspicions. All night he thought about it. If the boy couldn’t have invented it all there must be some truth in it. And if Rogers didn’t appear capable of such a thing he had only to remember his theology. Why should it be impossible? There was no sin man was not capable of. He had heard of worse sins when he was studying. It was people who showed a clean face to the world who were most likely to surprise you with some secret shameful sin you would never have guessed—people like Mrs Palmer who imagined there was no sin in her, like Rogers who believed he had a page 280 secular mission, like Nicholson and the doctor with their faith in human ameliorability.

Hadn’t Rogers claimed a liking for Peter? What sort of a liking? Young Palmer had hinted at such a thing in him; at the bar on the first day of the boycott, hadn’t he mentioned him in the same breath as Arthur Henderson?

At least there was one thing he could do for his son; he would send him back to the convent again.

But when he woke it was harder to believe. He kept Peter home from school, though Nora nagged and said he was giving the boy too much of his own way and they’d have Mr Rae down to see them again. He took him to the doctor’s that morning and the rumour got round that Mike had given in at last, because when the escort party had waited for him as usual he hadn’t shown up. The doctor would not believe the story but he examined Peter and found no signs of violence. Mike questioned Peter further but by now Peter had told the story so often that he had created the incident in his mind end come to believe it. Mike concluded that if there was no act of violation there had been some attempt: there was certainly something obscene in making a boy take his pants down to hit him with a ruler. The trouble was that the boy was not consistent about the place and the time. Once he said it happened at school on the afternoon before he stopped going to school, but then he corrected himself and said no, it was in the scrub that night near his hidey-hole.

‘Why did you stop going to school, if it only happened then?’ his father asked.

‘Oh, he chased me before,’ Peter said, ‘He told me what he’d do to me. He said he’d catch me one day after school when the kids had gone home.’

Mike didn’t comment, Peter’s explanation would be believable if the rest of it was true. But did Rogers on his visit to them that night look as if he had come fresh and unashamed from a crime? Mike did not go to work that day or the next. He stayed at home brooding, irritating Nora who cursed him for letting that fool of a schoolteacher talk him into stopping work. He did not go to Palmers’ either. He needed a drink, but he didn’t trust himself to keep silent. He wanted to go there to make some inquiries from old Don about what sort of a chap Rogers was, but it wasn’t likely Don would say anything relevant unless he was to name his suspicion. Young Palmer knew something, but young Palmer didn’t like him. At the end of the second day he was so worried by his confusion that he made up his mind to tell Rae and have the thing aired in court.