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

3

3

Mike Herlihy sat bored and sour in his kitchen, reading the Argus. He had chopped enough wood for a month; there was no page 327 garden; there was nothing for him to do. Nora was dusting and polishing in another room, to get away from the irritation of a man in her kitchen. He made a pot of tea and called her. At least this trouble of Peter’s had brought them a bit closer. When he dropped crumbs and slopped tea in his saucer Nora nagged but the old bite was our of her scolding.

‘Bloody two-faced bastards,’ she said. ‘They kicked up at young Palmer taking their jobs. They don’t say anything about that schoolteacher taking yours. If Thompson had any guts he wouldn’t employ him. They’re all the bloody same—you get no thanks for it. The company gave Jack the sack, and the dredge company’s pushed you overboard now. I wouldn’t go back to them! I’d go and work in the mine!’

‘Rogers that was supposed to be such a socialist,’ Mike said. ‘Couldn’t abide scabbing. What’s he doing but scabbing, taking my job?’

‘He’ll pay yet,’ Nora said. ‘He’s only got a couple of weeks’ freedom. He’ll be living off the country then.’

They looked up as the door clicked and Peter came in.

‘What are you doing home now?’ Nora said in alarm.

Peter didn’t answer but stood with one hand on the back of his father’s chair. ‘Answer your mother,’ Mike said. ‘Why are you home from school?’

‘It had better be a bloody good reason,’ Nora said. ‘You’re in trouble enough without adding to it.’

‘Is anything wrong?’ Mike asked.

‘No,’ Peter said.

Nora took him by the neck of his raincoat and shook him. ‘Then why are you home?’ she screamed.

‘I don’t like school,’ he said. ‘Anyway, we break up today.’ He had in fact had a week at school since he made up the story about Rogers. Miss Dane treated him as if he was an untouchable. The other teachers looked strangely at him. The other children had picked up rumours and he found himself an object of cold curiosity and an outcast. The last straw was when a gang of boys began to chase him. He hadn’t been to school since, but today it was raining and he was so tired of cowering from the drips in his hidey-hole that he had braved his mother’s fury.

‘You can’t pull that trick twice, young man,’ she said. ‘It was over your wagging school that all this other business came out. You can’t tell us that one again,’

‘Shut up,’ Mike said. ‘You can credit the boy with the truth now and again. He didn’t make that lot up.’

page 328

‘I won’t stand it, do you hear? You’ve got no excuse to be missing school.’ She pulled at Peter and he cheeked her. ‘None of your lip now!’ But Peter gave her more. She fetched the stick and laid it on his legs. ‘Dad!’ Peter called, but Mike didn’t interfere.

‘Now get up to school,’ Nora said, ‘And I hope they’ll give you more for being late.’

From the door, between sobs, Peter shouted: ‘You’re mad, both of you. I’m going to say it was all lies about Mr Rogers.’ He ran for his life, Mike and Nora ran after him, and Mike would never have caught him if the boy hadn’t been skulking in some fern at the side of the road.

‘What’s this you said?’ Mike demanded. ‘What about Rogers?’

‘It was only a story,’ Peter said with bitter triumph. ‘I made it all up.’

‘Tell me now,’ Mike said frantically, ‘tell me the truth and no shenanikins. Was it true?’

‘He’s only saying it to annoy us,’ Nora said. ‘You say that again I’ll damn near flay you,’

‘I did so make it up,’ Peter said.

Mike clouted him on the head and kept slapping him on the back.

‘Tell me now. Was it true?’ After a few minutes of saying, ‘No’, Peter whimpered ‘Yes’, and Mike stopped.

They sent him out again, not caring if in fact he went to school. ‘We’ll look bloody fools if it was lies,’ Mike said.

‘He only said it to get even,’ Nora said. ‘By Christ, if he comes out with that in court, I’ll bloody near kill him.’

‘Lay off him a bit,’ Mike said. ‘Don’t make him get a set on you or he might…. What about the schoolteacher, if it’s not true?’

‘It’ll serve him bloody well right for pinching your job,’ Nora said. ‘You’re not in any position to be defending him.’

‘That’s all very well,’ Mike said. ‘You can’t go ruining a man’s life on a lie.’

‘That’s his worry,’ Liza said. ‘He’s got a lawyer. It’s up to them.’

‘I don’t want to go through with this if it’s lies.’

‘Don’t back out now,’ she said. ‘You’ve got a chance to get even with him.’

‘That’s got nothing to do with it.’

But the more Mike pondered the more confused he was. He wouldn’t be able to believe Peter now, whatever he said: yet if his first story was true, he couldn’t back out. He decided to let the matter solve itself, and he framed a silent prayer to God to do justice.