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 295


The morning Heath suspended Rogers from work was the beginning of Miss Dane’s decline. When Heath came in to tell her that she would have to take both classes, she said, ‘Oh? Is Mr Rogers ill?’

Heath made a wry grin. ‘Well, that’s one way of putting it,’ he said. ‘I’ll tell you more at playtime.’

At playtime he stood up and put his cup of tea on the staffroom table. ‘Well, colleagues,’ he said. The teachers expected something important when he called them colleagues. ‘I took a decision this morning which I feel I should explain to you, and I know that you’ll recognize that it was in the best interests of the school….’ There was an expectant but slightly sceptical silence, and Heath paused to savour it. ‘Mr Rogers—you may or may not know—is to be charged with a very serious offence….’ He blushed and stumbled in his speech. ‘… a charge of indecency, gross malpractice…. I—I—you know what I mean….’

Miss Dane gasped, ‘Really!’ and choked on her food. Mrs Hansen protested, ‘Never!’ Fred Lawson sat still in prim pink silence.

‘Never!’ Belle Hansen repeated. ‘I don’t believe it! If you mean what I’m thinking…. What exactly is the charge?’

‘Well, we can’t go into details…. It’s not necessary. I thought you might have had some shame, Mrs Hansen.’

‘Mr Heath!’ Belle said. ‘There’s no need to insult me!’

‘I beg your pardon,’ Heath said. ‘I spoke hastily. No offence ‘meant, and none should have been taken…. I mean, it’s hardly fit for ladies’ ears.’

‘Who was the girl?’ Fred Lawson asked, and Miss Dane, no longer choking, said, ‘Really!’

Heath looked relieved and smiled from superior knowledge. ‘I’m afraid it wasn’t a girl,’ he said.

‘Who was it then?’ Belle demanded. ‘Say what you mean. I can’t stand people who talk in mysteries.’

page 296

‘Well, of course, if you must know, Mrs Hansen, you can blame yourself if you’re shocked. It was a boy—young Herlihy! And never in my career have I come across anything so disgusting!’ He sat down, red and challenging.

‘I don’t believe it!’ Mrs Hansen said. ‘Paul may be a bet wet and woolly in his ideas and all that—I don’t believe he’d do that.’

Fred Lawson kept his embarrassed silence. Miss Dane couldn’t speak for shame and disgust: one part of her mind clamoured to visualize the act in detail, the other part refused even to recognize the demand.

Heath shrugged. ‘That’s the charge,’ he said.

Fred Lawson said, ‘Well all I can say is if a man does that sort of thing he deserves all he gets.’

‘Well, I agree, Fred,’ Mrs Hansen said, ‘But first you’ve got to prove it. Until it’s proved I don’t believe it.’

‘You’ve got no right to express an opinion,’ Heath said, ‘The matter is sub … sub judice. No one is supposed to talk about it.’

‘That’s really what I’ve been saying,’ Mrs Hansen said.

Heath looked at her with exaggerated weariness, as if to say, ‘How can one argue with someone so illogical?’—‘Well, that’s something we’re agreed about,’ he said.

‘A man is innocent till he’s proved guilty,’ she said, with what struck Heath as irrelevant stubbornness.

Heath looked around the group, to break off this argument, and said, ‘Well, anyway, I’ve suspended Rogers…. Whatever the details of it, and whether he’s innocent or guilty, all that is beside the point….’

‘Very much to the point, I’d say,’ Mrs Hansen said.

Heath ignored her. ‘As far as I’m concerned my first duty is to the school, and so long as a shadow of suspicion attaches to Rogers I won’t have him inside the fence. And I’ll answer to the Board for it tool’ He challenged the room about him as if he had expected opposition. ‘I expect some support from my staff, in a matter like this,’ he added more limply.

‘Well, no one has objected, have they?’ Mrs Hansen said. By nods or silence the teachers agreed that Heath had taken the best course, Heath leaned over to Fred Lawson, ignoring the women teachers. ‘Nothing short of hanging for an offence like that, that’s my opinion!’

‘I wouldn’t place much credence on Peter Herlihy’s stories,’ Mrs Hansen said. ‘He’s just the kind of brat that’d get a teacher into trouble if he could.’

Miss Dane found it hard to teach that day. It wasn’t only that she page 297 had twice the number of children whose reading had to be heard; it was that she couldn’t concentrate. Heath in the staffroom had given her an inkling of evil she had never before suspected. She felt like someone who has just stumbled on information that suggests the existence of a sinister secret society involving no one knew how many people, organized so discreetly that one could never know whether one’s most intimate friends were members. It was as if Heath had pricked an internal abscess of which she had been unaware, and the pus was seeping through her system. What Rogers was charged with was to her literally unthinkable, certainly unspeakable; yet it seemed to her to symbolize all her experience of Coal Flat—a wicked town of blasphemy, fornication and perversion, cynically cloaked in a mocking version of the conventions by which decent society—Roko society—normally lived. The surface of Coal Flat life she no longer believed in, but she feared to know its hidden workings. So that she became a displaced person, fearing and distrusting the people she met, suspecting secret meanings in the most perfunctory remarks. Somehow she suspected too that the offence Rogers was accused of was connected with his socialism: he always did have to be different.

Even though the strike was settled, the extra police had left, and the Raes were sighing themselves back to normal, Miss Dane felt no relief from the anxieties occasioned by the strike. She slept no better at night, and often involuntarily she shuddered, for no apparent reason. She felt that in her blood she had acquiesced in the town’s evil—not by giving in to Don that night, either; but by something less definite and more pervasive. She felt growing on her a paradoxical contentment, a sort of acceptance of whatever life threw up; but she would not submit to it. Her conscience accused her of condoning sin, and her mind and her nerves were continually on edge. That night as she tried to rest between tossing, she felt her breasts tingle and then a strange horror of herself and her body. The dark did not soothe her, and if it hadn’t been that she would have had to explain to the Raes next morning, she would have switched on the light and tried to sleep with the light on. The next day was Saturday, and that week-end she didn’t go out of doors, so that Mrs Rae was a little irritated at her sitting around all the time, getting in the road of the housework. She was too unsettled to help Mrs Rae; she broke a plate when she was wiping up. On the following Saturday night she asked Mrs Rae to sleep with her again. It was only ten days since they had had to sleep together, because of the extra constables in the house.

‘I can’t face it, Mrs Rae!’ she blurted. ‘I’m all to pieces since I page 298 came to this town. I can’t sleep, but it’s not that. I have bad dreams, and I’m frightened I’ll have nightmares if it goes on much longer. I see shapes in the dark. Last night I was sure I heard a step outside the window. I kept thinking one of the strikers was going to throw a brick through. Please, Mrs Rae. Just till the holidays—a bit of change should buck me up again then. I’m afraid I’ve been working too hard, and now with Mr Rogers away, I’ve twice as much to do…. You’re very soothing, Mrs Rae. Please! I know you won’t refuse me.’

Mrs Rae just stared at her. ‘You want a holiday, you’re run down,’ she said, but her words didn’t soothe her misgivings about Miss Dane’s sanity.

Rae himself was more surprised when he heard that he was expected to give up his bed again. With gestures of bad temper he muttered in spurts to himself as he went to his new room and found hairpins on the dressing-table and frocks in the wardrobe. Last time, she had at least cleared the room for him. He slept strangely again, like a married man on his first night in the army. In the morning he had to lie in and wait till the women were out of his room before he could get a clean shirt. That day he shifted some of his clothes to his new room, and asked Miss Dane to clear out a drawer for him. It seemed to give a seal of permanency to the arrangement. ‘But, understand,’ he told his wife, ‘it’s just for this week. When she comes back after the term holidays she’s got to settle down in her own room and none of these shenanikins. It was all tommy-rot in the first place.’

But Miss Dane was not greatly soothed. It was a comfort to have Mrs Rae’s big placid flesh so near; for two nights she lay more still but she slept no better, only in fitful dozes. First thing on the Monday morning she was ill; she didn’t feel like breakfast but Mrs Rae said, ‘What you need is building up,’ and coaxed her, as if she was a child, over her bacon and eggs. But she went straight to the bathroom and lost it.

‘I really must see a doctor,’ she said. Normally she would have taken her car down to Greymouth and seen a town doctor; her position called for it, and it would have been a comfort to take her ailments to a professional man of really respectable society rather than a man who was part of this local sinful community, a communist too. But, with Rogers away, she could hardly desert the school, and she decided she would have to see Dr Alexander in his evening surgery hours.

‘Do you feel better now?’ Mrs Rae asked her.

‘I feel well enough to go to school,’ she said.

page 299

‘The kids had better watch out today,’ Rae said with unusual mischief, but she took it sullenly. Mrs Rae was staring at her strangely as she left for school. ‘I didn’t like to ask her,’ she said, ‘but I just wonder….’

‘What are you wondering?’ Rae asked.

‘Morning sickness,’ she said. ‘It’s usually a sign….’

‘Oh, tommy-rot!’ Rae said and laughed right out. ‘Why, she doesn’t even know any men here! Unless you’re going to pin that on young Rogers too…. You women,’ he said. ‘It’s all you ever think of—having babies!’

‘I’d have had more if you’d let me,’ she said.

‘Two was all we could afford,’ he said. ‘You’ve no right to bring life into the world unless you can provide for it. Things were harder at the time, and it’s too late now to have more.’

Mrs Rae wasn’t listening. ‘I wonder what the doctor will say,’ she said.

It cased Miss Dane that the doctor was so impersonal. ‘They say he’s a good doctor,’ she thought. ‘At least his communism won’t affect that. But then what can you believe of what these people say?’ He asked her a few questions about her diet and her work and she felt reassured. Then he asked her about her periods. ‘But why?’ she protested. ‘Why ask that? I don’t see the reason…. Well, yes I think I did miss, I’m not sure. It was when I was making arrangements to shift from the hotel. And since then too I seemed to have so much else to think about. I really don’t know how I came to ignore it. Yes, I remember noticing it, then somehow I forgot about it altogether…. But what’s that got to do with it?… Really, Dr Alexander,’—she protested with acid archness—‘I’m hardly an expectant mother.’

When he asked to examine her, she hesitated. She had been examined before by male doctors, submitting herself in awe as if in sacrifice to a high priest; but this time she felt strangely reticent and afraid of exposing herself. ‘You can undress behind the screen,’ the doctor said; but she didn’t move. She seemed to commune with herself for a few seconds. Then in a humble but firm tone, as if driven to her last resources, she said: ‘Doctor Alexander, I’m afraid I must insist that your wife should be present.’ The doctor looked at her in surprise, but without comment he went out of the surgery and called his wife whose hands were doughy from making wholemeal scones. ‘Fancy baking at this time of night,’ a woman said as she passed through the waiting-room.

Miss Dane held herself in throughout the examination, with a blushing deliberate dignity, as if she was carefully holding herself page 300 together in case she might break up at the least relaxation. Mrs Alexander washed the flour and drying dough from her hands and watched. When the doctor had finished, he asked his wife to stay.

‘Sit down, Miss Dane,’ he said when she had dressed. ‘Please understand that anything said in this surgery is confidential. My wife isn’t one for gossip…. I’m afraid I have some news that may surprise you….’

‘Is it anything serious doctor?’ she asked.

‘Serious? Well it may be, and it may be all right. You see, you’re not ill. It’s perfectly natural. But it may give you a shock. Take it gently, Miss Dane. There’s a good deal of time left yet. You’re three months pregnant.’

Miss Dane didn’t speak. She stared through the doctor as if slightly stunned, she stared at his wife and then at the floor. It was as if she was stripped and exposed, thrown back on an ultimate core of integrity, no longer able to pretend or try to justify herself, capable of nothing except being what it seemed she was. She felt now as if, without knowing, she had been initiated into the sinister secret society, and it would accept no resignations.

Then she moaned, ‘Oh, Doctor… I can’t be.’ But she didn’t believe what she said.

‘Don’t take it so badly Miss Dane,’ the doctor said. ‘There’s still plenty of time to get married. It doesn’t show yet and may not for another month. Who was the man?’

‘I don’t know any men,’ she protested involuntarily. ‘yes,’ she said as if to herself, ‘There was a night. It was…. Oh, I had a hand in it too. I pretended I didn’t know it was liquor. I encouraged him. Oh, Mrs Alexander….’ She began to weep and had to fight against sobbing. ‘Marriage is quite out of the question…. He’s not interested in me. I know! I tried to win him…. He brushed me off! Like a spider!’

Mrs Alexander stood behind her, nervous herself and embarrassed as she tried to soothe her by putting her hands on Miss Dane’s shoulders. ‘Who was it?’ she said.

‘If you’d rather not tell,’ the doctor said, ‘you needn’t. But it might help if we knew. I could advise you….Is he in this town?’

‘Yes,’ she said.

‘Not a teacher?’

‘Oh, no!’

‘Well, at least you can see him and tell him. He’s not married, is he?’

‘Oh, no!… He was; he’s divorced.’

‘Then you’ll have to persuade him to marry you. It’s the least he page 301 can do. He put you in this situation, he’ll have to support you now. It’ll be awfully difficult for you if he doesn’t.’

‘Oh, Doctor, I’d never live it down. I’ll never live it down, even now…. But he won’t…. Why did it have to happen to me? I’d always been so careful. He’s the only one I’ve known in all my life; honestly Doctor, I’m prepared to swear it on the Bible, I’d never done it before!’

‘We believe you,’ Mrs Alexander said. She found it awkward to manage simple homely statements.

‘Not once! Not once, do you understand?… And now, only once; and this had to happen. I should have known. I should have left this town. Oh, I could see when I came here what an evil godless place it is. I wish I’d never come here…. It’s not fair, Doctor! It simply isn’t fair. It’s a thing I’ve always condemned myself. I never had any sympathy for girls who got themselves into trouble; I said it served them right. And now I’m as bad!’

‘But Miss Dane,’ the doctor said. ‘It’s a perfectly natural thing. You talk of it as if it’s an illness or a crime. Society expects you to marry, but if you can arrange that, you needn’t have any fears. You should be proud. You’re a mother; you’re bringing life into the world. Surely it’s a sacred thing, a religious thing to do. Even if you can’t marry you mustn’t despise yourself for it. But you should try to marry.’

‘Doctor Alexander,’ Miss Dane said, prim and aggrieved in spite of her earlier fit of sobs, ‘that’s a terrible thing to say. You must be a wicked man to talk like that, a complete heathen.’ She looked desperately at the doctor and his wife and stood shakily. ‘If you’re going to talk like that, I’ll have to go.’

The doctor dispensed her a phial of sleeping tablets, and said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t worry, Miss Dane. Remember what I said, you’ll have to see the father and tell him. If you have any trouble with him, or any worries at all, don’t hesitate to come back to me.’

Miss Dane stalked unsteadily out of the surgery, as the doctor called for the next patient, and said to his wife, ‘I shouldn’t have said that about it being natural.’

‘What a strange little woman,’ his wife said. ‘She’s thirty-three. Think of all the joy she’s missed in life. And this will only sour her the worse.’