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



Ahaura was a settlement on the river flat several miles up the Grey Valley. There was a sawmill, a railway station, and in the lush paddocks on the river flat, a few prosperous farmers ran sheep. Miss Dane drove there from Palmers’ to see Mr Hankinson, the Presbyterian parson who preached once a fortnight at the church in Coal Flat. There was no one else she could turn to; she didn’t look forward to seeing him, but she was beyond weighing the merits of her decision.

Mr Hankinson was a tall sour bent man in clerical grey. During the week he put in five full days of duty, driving to see the members of his congregation, drinking endless cups of tea with wives caught without warning in the middle of washing or baking. He would talk about their families for five minutes, then draw them into talk about religion: the talk was usually one-sided, they were embarrassed and usually said little but, ‘Yes, I s’pose you’re right, when you come to think of it,’ or else they tried to shy away to another topic. Sometimes if a child was ill, they were more amenable to serious talk. After a few minutes he would look at his watch, and say, ‘Just a page 311 little prayer, I think, Mrs Jones,’ and regardless of Mrs Jones’s demurring that she was just in her apron or had flour on her hands, he would direct her to kneel and he would kneel on the floor and pray solemnly and loudly. Then, baggy-knee’d, he would lurch his heavy sullen frame to his car to visit the next housewife on his round. He seldom met the menfolk, and was glad now to avoid them, since he was no longer able to meet them on their own terms; they had so little conversational ground in common. Occasionally he stopped his car to say hullo to some farmer or millhand and tax him with not turning up to church; but he never got more than vague promises, seldom honoured. He knew he was not popular, and it was a source of some consolation to him.

The manse was a six-roomed white wooden house already in need of a new coat of paint. He and his wife lived alone in it; they had no children. At one corner the corrugated-iron roof rose into a turret like that on Dr Alexander’s at Coal Flat. Only the roof showed from the road, because the house was hidden behind a high compact hedge of Olearia Forsteri, its twigs full of cankers. Mr Hankinson answered the door to Miss Dane. He stood with surprise and small welcome in a cardigan and slippers. He took Miss Dane’s umbrella but did not offer to take her wet raincoat. Nor did he offer her a cup of tea; he had had several himself on his rounds that afternoon and it wasn’t far off dinner time.

‘Well, Miss Dane?’ he said as he pointed her to a chair. He stood facing her with his hands behind his back and his back to the fire. His study was shelved sparsely with drab black books of theology. He seldom read them, or anything at all but the Bible, though the morning’s Press lay open at the roll-top desk where he wrote his sermons.

‘Mr Hankinson, there’s something I have to tell you. I need advice—desperately.’

‘Oh? … Let me see, you shifted from that awful hotel, didn’t you? You’re well fixed up at the policeman’s, aren’t you? What is it then?’

‘It’s an embarrassing thing to talk of.’

‘Oh?’ Mr Hankinson’s face was already set at the defence.

‘I wouldn’t have come to you if there’d been anyone else I could turn to, Mr Hankinson. But I’m desperate….’

‘It’s nothing—er—financial, I hope?’ Mr Hankinson blurted in great embarrassment.

‘Certainly not…. Please don’t judge me, Mr Hankinson. Don’t accuse me. But I have to do something…. I’m going to have a child, and the father won’t marry me.’

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‘Goodness me!’ Mr Hankinson exclaimed. ‘Miss Dane of all people! Are you serious?’

‘Mr Hankinson, you know I’m not given to practical jokes.’

‘Incredible!’ the parson was saying. ‘Good heavens, Miss Dane!… What do you expect me to do?’

‘Advise me, Mr Hankinson,’ Miss Dane wailed. ‘Advise me, for God’s sake!’

‘I’d advise you to remember your language,’ the parson said with dignity, as an interim measure.

‘Oh, really,’ Miss Dane pleaded in exasperation.

Mr Hankinson sat down and motioned Miss Dane to sit too. She perched on the arm of a chair still in her wet coat.

‘How long ago did this—this thing happen?’

‘Three months ago.’

‘I’m surprised at you!’ With heavy admonition he said. ‘And yet you’ve been coming to church all along, as if nothing had happened. I didn’t think I’d ever have to accuse you of hypocrisy, Miss Dane. Playing the organ, singing hymns, praying; as if nothing had happened. It’s a wonder you weren’t afraid of the roof falling on your head.’

‘Oh, Mr Hankinson….’

‘Don’t Oh, Mr Hankinson me, young lady,’ he said angrily. ‘I’m trying to help you.’ With what to him was unusual tenderness, he said, ‘Don’t you realize what you’ve done. You’ve committed an awful sin and there’s a heavy price to pay…. Who is the father?’

Miss Dane started at him with simmering defiance. ‘I’d rather not say,’ she said.

‘Be serious, Miss Dane. You haven’t the right to protect the man like that. You’re shielding evil. Really, Miss Dane, you can’t expect much help if you won’t say who the father is. It might have been possible to put pressure on him.—He’s not married already, is he? … Then what’s the objection to giving away his name? Does be go to our church? … Miss Dane, you must tell me his name.’

She stared at him and said nothing. The person rose sadly and heaving a sigh, said, ‘Then on your own head he it. If you want to shield evil, you can’t expect others to help you.’

‘What can I do?’ Miss Dane asked in a tense whisper.

‘In Heaven’s name, how can I tell you?’ the parson said, loud and exasperated. ‘It would have been a patched-up affair, anyway, marrying him now. But how you expect me to do anything when you won’t tell me his name….’

‘Mr Hankinson, I can’t.’

‘You’ve made your bed, then,’ he said firmly. ‘You’ll have to lie page 313 on it. It may even be God’s judgement that the man won’t marry you, so that you can’t evade the shame of it.’

‘Oh, Mr Hankinson, you’ve got no understanding,’ Miss Dane said. ‘Why did I ever come to you?’

‘Quietly and firmly the parson said, ‘If you had any shame, you wouldn’t have had the cheek to come in the mood you’ve come to me now.’

‘Miss Dane stamped her foot. ‘You’ve got no understanding of a woman’s feeling!’ she shouted.

‘Don’t act the devil’s advocate,’ Mr Hankinson said, still quietly. ‘It’s your own choice. If you want to save your soul you’ve got a lot to make up. Defiance won’t help you. You’ll have to grovel on your knees and repent, repent, Miss Dane. I’d be failing in my duty if I told you otherwise.’

‘Miss Dane was crying.

‘That’s better,’ he said. ‘Tears are better. Now go and think of the awfulness of what you’ve done. And come back when you’re in a more repentant mood than you are today. Only you’ll have to tell me the father’s name or I won’t be able to help you.’

‘Oh, you’re too holy for words!’ Miss Dane cried suddenly. ‘I don’t care! You’ve got no feelings…. You—you creeping Jesus!’

‘Stop your blasphemy!’ Mr Hankinson shouted and flung open the door. He slammed the front door behind her and returned to his fire puffing.

Miss Dane was surprised at herself, at her defiance of everything she had hitherto respected. But still she muttered, ‘I don’t care! I don’t care!’ as she drove again into the rain. She seemed to be finding in herself reserves of strength she had never before suspected. She felt strong enough to go ahead and have the baby, husband or no husband.

However, just as the car was approaching Ngahere, the engine stalled. Miss Dane tried several times to start it, then looked at the steady rain outside and sighing deeply, fell head forward over the wheel. She heard a car pull up, and someone tapped on the window. Under a black hat she saw a man’s face grinning with effort against the rain.

‘In trouble?’ he said.

‘Oh, Mr Flaherty,’ she said. ‘I’m just out of petrol.’

He went to his car, brought a gallon tin and poured it into her tank. ‘You can drop it round at the presbytery next time you’re at Ahaura,’ he said. He tipped his hat. ‘You look all upset,’ he said grinning as if he was paying her a compliment. She didn’t answer.

She couldn’t have said when the idea first took her; it just seemed page 314 to grow, to have always been there and yet without her having been aware of it. It was partly because of the contrast between Hankinson’s manner and the priest’s; partly because it was the first act of kindness she had been aware of that day; partly because it was unsolicited, that he didn’t seem put out that she hadn’t even thanked him. She had always distrusted that grin of the Father’s—as if he was hungry for converts, but today she was grateful for it. She made up her mind in the night to get the gallon of petrol first thing after breakfast and drive straight over to Ahaura with it.

It didn’t bother her in the least that she didn’t go to school that morning, or any other morning that week. Heath assumed she was ill, and in one moment of fluster at having to manage with two of his staff away, he sent a boy to look for Rogers. But the boy reported that Rogers was working on the dredge now. And on second thought, Heath was glad he hadn’t asked him.

On her way to Ahaura Miss Dane passed Mr Hankinson’s car; he didn’t acknowledge her, and it gratified her unusually that she could stare him through as if he was a stranger. Father Flaherty answered the door himself. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘I’m awake to all your tricks. Trying to get us a bad name, having women call on us. I know you Presbyterians.’

‘Miss Dane stammered but she couldn’t raise a smile. ‘Here’s your petrol, Mr Flaherty,’ she said. ‘It was very kind of you. I forgot to say thank you.’

‘Not at all, not at all.’

‘I’d like to talk to you seriously, Mr Flaherty,’ she said.

His face showed surprise and sudden wariness. ‘Yes?’ he said.

They sat in a sitting-room that showed signs of being little used, of being over-dusted and over-polished by someone strange to the house. There were some black books, a missal, piles of Catholic Truth Society pamphlets going yellow, with their covers falling loose. The morning’s Argus lay unopened by some neatly refolded Zealandias.

Miss Dane felt more at ease with this man, but she didn’t know if it was because he was normally good-humoured, or whether it was because she didn’t know herself if she was genuine. She had come to try something out; at present she was exploring, acting a part. If it didn’t work out successfully nothing was lost. At least that was what she told herself.

‘Mr Flaherty,’ she said as if it was a carefully prepared speech, though it wasn’t, ‘What would you say to an unmarried mother?’

‘The priest looked surprised and irritated. He was about to say something harsh when he remembered that she owed him no alle page 315 giance. ‘She would tell me in the confessional. I wouldn’t have any personal dealings with her.’

‘What would you tell her, in the confessional?’ she persisted.

He stared at her for a minute, then, without surprise, he said, ‘You?’

‘Yes, Mr Flaherty,’ she said, losing control of herself in tears. ‘I had to come to someone for advice. I didn’t know all this would happen.’

‘Why did you come to me?’ he said, rather grimly.

‘I went to my own minister yesterday—I was on my way back when you gave me the petrol. Oh, Mr Flaherty, he was harsh to me, he gave me no sympathy, he put me out of his house.’

‘Are you looking for sympathy?’ he asked.

‘I want advice. The father won’t marry me. He was going to, but his mother won’t have it. I don’t know what to do.’

‘Who is he?’

‘I can’t tell you that.’

‘Then tell me one thing—is he a Catholic?’

‘No—no—he’s a heathen. But then I am too, after what I’ve done. Mr Flaherty, I’ve tried to live a good life, it was that once I slipped. I’m not denying that I encouraged him, the father I mean.’

‘At least you recognize your sin.’

She looked up at him with a hunted expression. ‘None of you clergy are very sympathetic, are you?’

‘You don’t expect us to excuse it, do you? There’s plenty of mercy for you if you do the right thing. I’m not trying to excuse your own minister for being so self-righteous about it. God’s mercy is infinite, and that’s something Hankinson doesn’t seem to know. But you can’t expect to be let off with a caution.’

‘Do you want me to grovel on my knees like Mr Hankinson said?’

‘You’ll have to do more than that before you’ve finished. Only it’ll be worth it in the end…. You don’t know how embarrassing this is for me. You’re not even a Catholic, and I usually hear these things in the confessional…. Here, this is a roundabout way of doing things I know.—How long have you got before the baby comes? … Well, you’ve got time then. Read these. I can’t do anything for you unless you’re a Catholic. These might help you.’ He gave her three books that expounded Catholic doctrines.

Miss Dane returned home and went straight to bed. She told Mrs Rae she was ill. All day she read, and before the week’s end she had visited the priest twice more, while he, hopefully yet with embarrassment, explained difficulties in the faith. By the week-end she had resolved to turn Catholic. Even before she had made up her mind, she felt as if she was about to unload her problem on to some- page 316 thing big enough to carry it, as if she was about to lose herself in an institution communal and maternal, where, no matter how much she might punish herself for her sin, she would not feel alone in it, or that her penances would be unnoticed and purposeless, as she would have felt in her own church.

It came on her like a subtle seduction, reminiscent somehow of that night at Ngahere when she had put up no resistance to the excitement caused by gin and tobacco-fumes and Don’s voice; yet it was slower and more peaceful.

And huge as the institution was she felt it gave her direct entry to the presence of God’s love. She used to suppress any but the most impersonal attitudes to Christ, as if they were shameful; now He came terribly near and dear to her, and the thought of his wrongs pricked anguish from her heart like a weeping sore. ‘I’ve offended him as much as anyone,’ she moaned as she remembered the night with Don and that last puff of self-will at Hankinson’s when she had used his name as a term of contempt. The more she thought about the Redemption the more abjectly she accused herself, but the more miraculous it seemed that her chances of salvation were infinitely greater than she had ever realized. Self-accusation and gratitude, guilt and joy, repeatedly her emotions turned on these, as if she were tied to a wheel endlessly turning between them, and the two came to seem one—like whining that turned into singing once you heard it properly. By the time she had taken the decision she felt released.

On the Friday evening Mr Palmer senior came and offered her £600 for her car. It came to her as an unexpected stroke of good luck, perhaps a token of a later change in grace. ‘But it’s only worth four hundred!’ she said. ‘True, I’ve only had it a year, and I’ve looked after it. But it only cost me £485.’

Dad stared at her as if he couldn’t believe her brightness. He had dreaded meeting her again. Yet she seemed to have forgotten that terrible argument in the billiard-room three days before. The transaction was done at the front door.

‘That’s to cover other eventualities,’ Dad said. He had worked it out methodically, so much for the car’s actual value, so much for seven months’ expenses of living without working, so much for the maternity hospital, and for the baby’s clothes. ‘If you ever need more, you know where we live.’

But she didn’t seem to follow him.

The following night Mrs Rae was surprised, answering a knock on the front door, to find Don Palmer. She called Miss Dane, who page 317 had withdrawn herself to her room after tea to read tracts. There was no-arm chair in the room and to read comfortably she had gone to bed. She came to the door mystified, in her dressing-gown. She did not ask Don in; she stood behind the half-open door with her head around it. Don noticed how strange she looked and thinking she was ill, felt to blame for it. She stared at him without hostility, only surprised, waiting for him to explain his visit.

‘I’ve come to tell you,’ he said miserably. ‘I’m not backing out.’ He had convinced himself that he had never intended different.

Miss Dane evidently didn’t understand him. ‘Yes, Mr Palmer?’ she said. ‘Yes? What is it?’

‘The old woman can go off her bloody rocker if she wants to,’ he said. ‘I’m not a bloody kid.’

‘Really, Mr Palmer,’ she said. ‘It is a miserable sort of night to be standing at the door talking.’

‘I’ve come to tell you,’ he said. ‘I’ll marry you.’

She stared as if she hadn’t heard.

‘We’re getting married,’ he said. ‘You’re getting what you wanted. There won’t be any scandal.’

She seemed to be looking right through him, and he almost begged her, ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, Miss—what’s your first name? You’ve never told me that.—Christ, don’t you see? I’m going to marry you. We’ll go away, away from the old woman….’

‘Please mind your language,’ she said distantly and firmly. ‘I’m sorry, I’m afraid I’ve made other arrangements.’

‘You’ve what? How could you make other arrangements? You said there was no other way out for you.’

‘Unless you were prepared to become a Catholic,’ she said.

‘A Catholic! For Christ’s sake. I’ll turn anything you want me to. You’re not a Catholic!’

‘That wouldn’t be good enough, Mr Palmer. You wouldn’t be a true believer. I couldn’t take the responsibility. And even if I left the child with you I couldn’t be sure that you would give it a Christian upbringing. No. No. I’m quite decided now, Mr Palmer. I’ll have to go ahead with my own arrangements.’

What arrangements?’

‘I’m joining the Church.’

‘The Church!’ he exclaimed, exasperated.

‘I’m changing to the true faith, and if it’s at all possible I’ll …’ but she checked herself.

‘That’s all very well!’ Don protested. ‘If there was no other way out. Can’t you see it’ll be better for you to get married and give the kid a father? What good will the Church do to you?’

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‘I could hardly expect you to see that.’

‘Miss Dane! Oh, whatever your name is, Miss Dane,’ Don pleaded. ‘It’s my last chance to get my head out of water…. I’ve felt like a worm since the last time you came round … I had to do it. I had to tell the old woman where she got off. Don’t go and ditch me now!’

‘You’ve had your chance, Mr Palmer,’ Miss Dane said quietly and firmly, ‘and it’s past now. I’m quite convinced there was a purpose in your mother’s intervention and I’m thankful for it now. I can see things a lot more clearly now.’

‘Oh, for Christ’s sake …’ Don protested. She took offence at the oath, and with a touch of fierceness as from an old unconverted depth in her, she looked straight at him. ‘I don’t think I could live with you now. Not after the way you acted the other day.’ She quietly closed the door, leaving him bewildered and bereaved of his purpose.

Back in her room she blamed herself for having dared to show pride. Yet she felt strangely relieved: the future was so much clearer now, even though she hadn’t planned it. What would happen? Would she be able to put the baby in a convent, and become a teaching nun? Get another job, bring the baby up herself, unmarried and penitent, with her head high among the shaded whispers? She didn’t know: just now it didn’t seem to matter. The future was God’s and what he thought best would be good enough for her. She fumbled in a drawer for a fresh handkerchief and her fingers lit on Mrs O’Reilly’s St Christopher medal that she had forgotten about all these months. She smiled, hung it round her neck, and tears of gratitude melted from her eyes.

On the Monday she left the district. People thought she was only going away for the term holidays, but she never came back.