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



Constable Rae couldn’t believe it. He questioned Herlihy and then told him to bring the boy to his house. He concentrated on trying to establish the time and place of the alleged offence—7.30 p.m. on 30th July in the scrub by the dredge road. There were several discrepancies apparent in the boy’s story but the constable hadn’t the ability to frame objective questions in a case as shocking to him as this one; and anyway he didn’t consider that his job. He decided to get a statement from Rogers, and to save them both the embarrassment of questions in Jimmy Cairns’s kitchen he sent a note by a schoolboy that he wanted to see Rogers at his house after school. Rogers dropped his case at Cairns’s after school and said to page 286 Jessie, ‘I won’t he having a cup of tea. Rae wants to see me. I’m off to gaol.’

‘What’s happening?’ she asked.

‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘It can’t he serious.’

When the constable led him into the sitting-room, Rae said, ‘I’m afraid we’ll have to talk in private, dear,’ and Mrs Rae and Miss Dane looked wondering at Rogers as they carried their cups of tea to the kitchen.

Rogers blushed deeply when he heard the charge; he couldn’t believe it. ‘It’s not true,’ he said, more in wonder than in anger. He was overcome by fear that all his dealing with Peter might be brought into the open. How could he justify them? And how much harm would be done to the boy if they were known? Again he felt that his initial attempt to regenerate Peter had been a mistake. ‘I can’t believe that Peter said it,’ he said; and then he remembered what Peter had threatened before he retreated into the scrub. ‘How does he know anything about a thing like that?’

‘That’s the mystery,’ Rae said. ‘Someone must have taught him. I want to know if it was you.’

‘I never told him anything like that,’ Rogers said.

‘Did you do anything like that?’

‘Do you think I did?’

‘No, I wouldn’t have thought so. But my job is to find out what’s at the back of this. You understand I’m only doing my job.’

When Rogers made a statement, he did not mention his psychiatric treatment of Peter. Nor did he mention Peter’s threat because that would have involved broadcasting Peter’s story about Don and Miss Dane in the scrub.

He didn’t tell the Cairnses until the next morning when he arrived home early and unexpectedly. Heath met him in the school corridor that morning. ‘Rogers,’ he said, ‘I want to see you.’

‘Mr Rae called on me last night,’ Heath said with a blandly pleasant look that showed that this triumph was prepared. ‘As you know, the charge is so serious I can’t ignore it. I wouldn’t be doing my duty by the children and the parents if I did. I’m suspending you, young man, until the case is over and you’re cleared or proved guilty.’ He smiled with an attempt at patient impartiality, then added enigmatically, ‘Of course I haven’t any doubt myself about what the verdict will be.’

‘Have you the power to do this?’ Rogers asked.

‘Of course I have the power. What have you got to growl about? You’ll still draw your salary in the meantime. You can have a paid holiday—you’ll be better off than your precious strikers.’

page 287

Rogers was staggered. Heath believed the accusation. What if other people believed it? Or if the children heard of it? How would he face anybody? He wondered if the Palmers would believe it as easily. He didn’t put up much opposition to Heath. ‘You know where to find me if you want me back,’ he said.

‘That’s not likely to be before the next term, my boy,’ Heath said affably. ‘If I were you I’d be looking round for a lawyer. You’ll need one. Ah, yes,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t pay to be too kind to children like that boy. They’ll often bite the hand that feeds them. I’m taking it for granted, of course, that the boy’s been telling lies.’ Rogers stared at him with panic. He didn’t answer. He almost ran from the school. Children stopped to watch him go.

Jessie Cairns was doing her washing. Jimmy was sitting at the table reading the Argus. ‘What, are you on strike too?’ Jimmy said.

‘Suspended,’ Rogers said. ‘Can you believe it? Suspended.’

‘What on earth for?’ Jessie asked, turning from her washtub and coming into the kitchen with wet hands held in front of her.

Rogers told them, haltingly and blushing.

‘Of all the nasty things to throw at you!’ she said. Rogers was conscious of Jimmy’s searching stare.

‘I wonder if Mike Herlihy’s getting his own back because you’re on our side,’ she said.

‘He wouldn’t try that,’ Jimmy said.

‘It’s evidently the boy,’ Rogers said. ‘I did talk to him on the road the other night. But I never left the road.’

‘What sort of mind has he got then?’ Jessie wondered. ‘If I was you I’d see a lawyer.’

‘I’ll go and see the doctor,’ Rogers said.

‘Yes, he’s your man,’ Jimmy said. ‘This’ll go hard on Herlihy if it’s shown up as a lot of lies.’

‘Well, it’s not true,’ Rogers said.

He was surprised that the doctor knew. ‘I examined the boy,’ he said. ‘There was certainly no sign of violation. What are they accusing you of?’

‘Indecent assault,’ Rogers said. ‘They say I made the boy take his pants down and hit him with a ruler. Then he says I chased him and he ran away. How could he run away without tripping if he had his pants round his calves?’

‘I can’t see why Rae’s going ahead with it,’ the doctor said. ‘But you’ve got nothing to worry about. It’ll all come clean in court.’

‘Miss Dane did that!’ Rogers said. ‘I just remembered. Oh, God, do we have to bring her into this too? … Peter told me that night she kept him behind after school because he’d thrown plasticine at page 288 her. He says she made him take down his pants and slapped him and then hit his bottom with a ruler.’

‘Can you believe anything that boy says?’ the doctor said. ‘I don’t want to rub it in, but you see now you were playing with fire. You helped to set free all that boy’s destructive impulses and now you can’t control them.’

‘Someone had to take the risk.’

‘In safer conditions than you could be sure of,’ the doctor said.

‘He warned me too,’ Rogers said. ‘There’s something else I must tell you. Don’t tell anyone. He says he saw Miss Dane and Don Palmer together in the scrub one night. He told her. That’s why she hit him with the ruler. I was going to tell his father he hadn’t been at school lately. He said that if I told his father he’d tell everyone about Miss Dane and Don—I’d told him to keep it a secret. Then he said he’d say it was me. Then he said he’d say it was me and some children.—One boy in class did have some fantastic story like that once.—So you see it’s not a far step to inventing what I’m accused of.’

‘How much of this talk goes on in your class?’

‘That’s the only time I know of. Peter had been talking to this boy —Donnie Palmer. Peter would have tried to corrupt other children anyway, if he’d been left as he was. The thing was to cure him. I’m sure it was a passing phase in Donnie, and a shallow one. He’s probably forgotten it all now.’

‘Can you be sure you haven’t done the children harm?’

‘I’m quite sure. Peter’s the only unhealthy one in the room. Donnie Palmer is unspoilt. Only he’s a bit more rebellious and shifty since Heath strapped him…. It broke his trust in adults. I’m sure about this, doctor. Healthy children are immune to Peter’s sickness. It isn’t contagious. Donnie was only attracted for a day or two because it was being impudent to authority, a revenge for Heath’s strap, to make up a story about his teacher. He didn’t know what he was saying.’

‘Well, as far as the court goes, you’ll only have to show that Peter’s word isn’t reliable. It looks as if he’s getting his revenge on you for Miss Dane.’

‘He said it was my fault, that I could have stopped her.’

‘Well, it should be easy to show how the boy concocted it.’

‘I can’t believe he said just that,’ Rogers said. ‘I don’t believe he’s heard of such a thing.’

‘Perhaps it’s the father’s interpretation of the boy’s story. When you see a lawyer, get him to play up that point.’


page 289

‘He can question the boy closely. If he shows ignorance there….’

‘What if all that comes out, about Peter and his obscene drawings? There’s only one way a court would interpet [sic: interpret] that. And that’s not everything. The trial frightens me. Who can stand up to the full light of justice?’

‘Why are you so worried? You’re not being screened. You’re not being evaluated. You’re being charged with a specific crime that you can prove yourself innocent of.’

‘It’s going to be so hard to face everybody. A smear like that sticks….’

‘Is it necessary to tell the court all the details of your treatment of the boy?’

‘I don’t see that I can avoid it. I’ve got to tell the truth.’

Mrs Alexander came in with tea. They had only just finished their first meal of the day. The doctor didn’t drink any. He told her of the charge. Rogers was embarrassed and expected her to say that she had warned him in the first place. But she was sympathetic.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ the doctor said. ‘People in this town will be friendlier to you than in any other, and when it’s proved false, they’ll be more friendly. You’ll have to hop down to Greymouth and see a lawyer.’

They hadn’t helped him much, yet Rogers was relieved when he left them.

A bicycle brake groaned behind him and Father Flaherty stepped off the pedals. Rogers grinned. ‘Hullo, Father,’ he said. ‘How’s the sporting priest? Your brake wants oiling. Where’s your car anyway?’

‘Getting repairs done,’ he said. ‘What’s this I’m hearing about you? Is it true what Mike Herlihy tells me?’

Rogers didn’t feel like telling him; he began by striking a false attitude. ‘Now you’re not going to give away the secrets of the confessional, Father?’

The Father flushed. ‘Don’t he so damned frivolous about it,’ he said. ‘Mike told me in his house.’

‘I thought Mike was off your visiting list.’

‘Bernie O’Malley asked me to see him. Tell me now, is it true?’

‘What did he tell you?’

‘He said you’d been interfering with the boy.’

‘Well, that’s true and it’s not true. It’s not true what you’re thinking and what Mike thinks. I wouldn’t be capable of it. But I have interfered with the boy’s mind, not very skilfully it seems. I was trying to undo the harm done by his parents and by the nuns at one of your convents and you, incidentally, with your story of page 290 hanging him up by the toe-nails. Everybody was trying to scare him and his mind was in an unholy mess. I tried to free him.’

‘Then it’s true what Mike says about telling the boy about sex and God knows what other sordid things.’

‘Yes. Someone had to do something for the boy. His mind was on those things already. I had to tell him the truth so that the knowledge could free him.’

‘And you have the nerve to hold up your head and admit it? And treat it so lightly?’

‘Why not?’

‘God forgive me if I say anything I shouldn’t, but you deserve all that’s coming to you.’

‘Why? I never did what I’m being charged with.’

‘My God, you’ve got a lot to learn, Paul. You should be down on your knees, humbling yourself. And you just shrug it off and don’t care.’

‘Haven’t you heard of psychiatry before?’

‘The devil’s invention it is too. It’ll do you good to suffer. In a way—do you know what I think?—in a way, I hope you’re convicted. Not out of malice. But for your own good. Suffering never hurt anyone where it matters. Life is suffering, and you’ll never see heaven without it.’

‘Most of us’d rather have heaven here and now, and without suffering.’

‘You fool,’ Father Flaherty said with gentle weariness, though he was only Rogers’s age. ‘I wish I could make you see it. I’ve got a good mind to put your weights up for your own good. I could give evidence in court and tell them what you’ve just told me. Then you might be convicted and you’d have time to think, you’d be alone a lot, and you would have to think of your conscience and your God…. Our Lord suffered, we all have to suffer too…. You might wake up to thank me for it.’

‘You wouldn’t though,’ Rogers said, staring at him, openly, as if amused.

The Father stared back and disappointment crossed his face. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t. It’d be like splitting on the secrets of the confessional. You told me openly. It wouldn’t be right. You see I’m too much tarred with the ways of this world. I treat a man as a man, and I’m not doing right by your soul, but I can’t do a dirty trick like that. And it might be presumption. Only remember what I said, Paul.’ He patted Rogers’s shoulder. ‘Promise me that, Paul,’ he said. ‘Think about yourself. Humble your soul. Get in touch with God.’

page 291

‘It’s the last thing I’m likely to do,’ Rogers said, feeling sorry for him.

From the footpath Arthur Henderson walked over to them, ‘Hello, Father!’ he said with sprightly mastery of his distaste for the priesthood, Rogers felt himself close up like an oyster.

‘I’ll pray for you,’ Father Flaherty said, stepping on to his bike.

Rogers watched him. ‘You’d be wasting your breath,’ he said.

Henderson said, ‘I say, Paul. There’s to be a special meeting of the committee tonight about you. What’s this I hear? Now don’t tell me it’s true is it?’

‘The charge isn’t true.’

‘Well, Paul,’ Henderson said accusingly. ‘I always say a man’s a man and he’s got his feelings and everyone’s got a different nature and everyone isn’t made the way the doctor ordered. But when it comes to a thing like this. Well, my goodness, Paul, I never thought you’d do a thing like that.’

‘It’s not true.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me, Paul?’ Henderson said. ‘You could have come to me with whatever you had on your mind. If I’d known you felt like that, I’d only have been too glad….’

‘It’s not true I said,’ Rogers said and strode away from him, leaving him shaking his head like an insulted aunt.