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

Conditions of use


Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (digital text)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Coal Flat



The sun was low and its light faded, and there was already a promise of frost in the air, as Truman Heath walked briskly from the school. His case was heavier than usual since he had foraged through his office collecting the last odds-and-ends of his possessions—books, rulers, a whistle, celluloid set-squares, an old pair of goloshes. His pace slowed a little when he saw his son ahead of him; he was in his class and he had never outgrown the dim embarrassment of having to teach in the witness of his son. He wished Ronald would run ahead.

There had been an air of disappointment over the whole day. It had started bright but by noon the sun had gone behind cloud, only to reappear for an hour or so before its setting. There was a frustrating lack of climax in his departure from the school. It was as if he was only a visitor letting himself out quietly from a party where no one had recognized him, as if he didn’t belong to the school. He had an unusual sensation of not belonging anywhere.

The reason was intangible. There had been the expected farewell presentation. He had roughly rehearsed what he would say and there were no hitches in the proceedings. Yet they had never quite warmed up. Perhaps it was because there were only three others present—the committee had sent Mr Rae. Fred Lawson had stood up at morning tea. His speech, in words designed for a larger audience, but subdued and apologetic in tone in deference to the smallness of their number, fell flat and a little ridiculous. He said it fell on him to take this opportunity of expressing on behalf of the staff of the school an appreciation of what Mr Heath had done for the school, and to say how sorry each of the staff would be to see him go; this small appreciation was a small token by which Mr Heath might remember his days in the Flat; he wished Mr Heath every success in his new position. Rae spoke in similar words. Mrs Hansen sat through it impassively, and when Heath blushed, de- page 320 murred and simpered, and unwrapped a fountain-pen, looking before he realized it for its trade-mark, and began himself to speak, she stared politely and blandly at his face, coldly hostile, putting him off, so that he kept losing the thread of his speech. Her stare made him more conciliatory in tone and at least he did attempt a speech more suited to the circumstances than Lawson’s. He said that on the whole he had enjoyed his stay at Coal Flat. It would be foolish to deny that there had been some unpleasantness, particularly during the recent strike. He wanted to thank the committee for its help and co-operation. He hadn’t always seen eye to eye with them, but, just as he had always put the school first, so he knew that the committee too had been inspired by a loyalty to what they sincerely believed were the best interests of the school. It was unfortunate that the term should close with two members of the staff away, one ill, but he hoped shortly to recover, one under a cloud of suspicion and again he hoped—here the occasion moved him to generosity—that that suspicion would prove unfounded and that that teacher’s career would proceed without any impediment. In fact he was only sorry that Mr Rogers was not there to hear those sentiments—and, well, shake hands, make amends as it were, and part friends. He wanted to thank the members of the staff for their loyal support and co-operation. It was true that they had had their differences, there had been argument and clash of opinion, but he had always maintained that a headmaster who never had any rows with his staff at some time or another wasn’t doing his job properly. It was a normal process in the workings of a democratic society, in fact a very healthy sign. Indeed those differences—and he had no wish to belittle them—had always been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties (here Mrs Hansen raised her eyebrows above that bland stare), and he on his side could say that he was leaving the school bearing ill will to no one, but carrying only kind and grateful memories of the staff and committee, and that he hoped—in fact Mr Rae’s and Mr Lawson’s words had assured him, and the gift was token of it, so there was no need to hope, he knew for certain—that the same applied to the staff and that he could gratefully accept their kind wishes for his new position. Though he was sorry to leave Coal Flat, he was looking forward to his new position in Central Otago. It would be a bigger school than Coal Flat, and it was an advance in his career. He had only one regret, and that was that he hadn’t been able, as he had thought, to pick his next position. His ambitions seemed to have been higher than his actual status in the eyes of the Otago Education Board. He might as well be frank about it. Never mind. He had no doubt that in his new school he could so page 321 consolidate his position that in a few years he would be able to get whatever school he chose to apply for. He hoped too that in time, by loyalty and conscientiousness and industry, both the male members of his staff would be able to do the same, and if they did he would feel amply repaid if he could feel that he in some small way had contributed to their success by his, well, precept and example. At this stage of his speech he was warmed up and would have talked for many more minutes, only Mrs Hansen conspicuously staunched a yawn, and though he looked to Fred Lawson for support he found none—only a sullen determined stare which there was no penetrating; and he would up his speech as gracefully as he could. Had he had another five minutes he might have led himself to believe that the parting was amicable on both sides; but as he sat down, flushing, he felt let down, frustrated, and a quiet anger began to smoulder in him.

Yet, as he thought of his speech now on his way home, what else could he have said? He had been honest; he hadn’t evaded the fact that they had had their differences. Couldn’t they see that clashes of opinion were unavoidable? Couldn’t they make allowances, especially at a time like this?… Well, that was over now and unalterable. What had been had been. There was the future to think of—the school at Cromwell—hadn’t the Palmers come from somewhere near there? But again he felt disappointed and cheated. Now that the appointment had been announced in the Education Gazette, now that he had been reassured by the advancement, there seemed to be nothing to look forward to for years till the next move. What lay ahead but packing, shifting into a new house, getting to know new people, new children? It didn’t attract him at all. Truman Heath, walking for the last time home from Coal Flat school, felt terribly tired. He was going home—home to the wife he had lost contact with when Ronald was born, to the bitchy silences over the meal-table, allying only in the rearing of their boy and often disunited over him, to mutual distrust and petty rivalry suppressed only for the sake of appearances to be kept up before the boy and the neighbours. Yes, they were well and truly married to each other. Neither would have been able to face the effort of living without the other—she needed his pay-cheques, he needed her to do his cooking and washing and mending, just as he needed the goodwill of her father on the Otago Education Board. The boy needed them both. He had lost contact with Ronald as soon as he was of school age. Perhaps he never really had made contact—hadn’t she always come between them when he was a baby, taking him from his arms, standing by as if a man could never be trusted with a baby, con- page 322 tinually hoisting the moral advantage of motherhood? There hadn’t been others, he had taken good care of that, and she didn’t seem to want another. He was going home now to her insolent reproving stare—even Mrs Hansen’s stare couldn’t make him feel so impotent —to pack up under her supervision, to carry out her orders and not fight back, only nurse little schemes of getting his own back on the sly.

Ronald looked back and saw him coming, and hesitantly, as if afraid to do otherwise, stopped till he caught him up. He didn’t speak to hi, only grinned lifelessly. ‘Well?’ Truman Heath said, and they walked uneasily together in silence.

Then Heath said with a brisk infusion of heartiness, ‘Looking forward to helping with the packing?’

‘I s’pose so,’ Ronald said; and there was no more said, till Heath tried again.

‘Cromwell. I was born there, you know.’

This more personal confession only embarrassed his son, as if it demanded that he too should lower his defences and open more freely his thoughts—but what was he thinking? He didn’t know himself, when his father was with him, what he felt or thought. He didn’t comment, and his father said, ‘Did you know that?’


‘I thought you knew…. Yes, born and bred there. Know it like the back of my hand. I’ll be able to point out all the places of interest to you….’

There was a brief sound of breath being expelled simultaneously from Ronald’s nose and mouth; it was a comment of complaisance, as if to humour his father and keep him talking and save those dreadful silences, yet it was at the same time an expression of distrust. And Heath took it as a sneer and gave up trying to fathom this strange unapproachable son he had never known.

What was this life? he wondered. Didn’t everything in the end turn out to be a hoax? You saved towards marriage and marriage failed you, a family failed you. You slaved out of ambition for the jobs of greater responsibility and higher salary, and you found yourself in charge of an obstructive staff, working with an unco-operative committee, living at a cold distance from the parents of the town. You were imprisoned, a squirrel in a cage, sweating your heart out and getting nowhere; imprisoned by a contemptuous wife and an impenetrable son, slaving for them without even their gratitude in return. All his life he had been straining after mirages.

The sun faded in a wintry glow behind the hills at the back of the gold dredge, and a frost crept into the air. There was a nostalgic page 323 blue over everything—the hills, the Grey Valley and the ranges behind it, over the town, even over Heath’s house behind the macrocarpa hedge. Truman Heath, walking unwillingly with his son to his front gate, feeling terribly alone and unloved, was newly touched with an old knowledge of the bitterness of life, of the futility of all effort, all action, all living, the universe, everything.