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


page 319



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.


On the Saturday morning, the day after he had suspended, Rogers took the bus to Greymouth to see a, lawyer. Mike Cassidy was a bluff big-hearted son of the generation of Irishmen who were among the first to settle the West Coast, taking to sawmills when the gold rush finished, lingering on to prospect on small gold claims, moving to the river-mouth ports to work at clearing bush, house-building, road-laying, railway construction. The brash days of the Coast came and went with the gold rush, but their traditions stayed till well into the new century, dying about the time of the First World War. Yet, in the three river-mouth ports, there was still a small elderly society of people who remembered those days. You could thumb through their photos, younger, looking self-important with handle-bar moustaches and hair parted in the middle and brushed straight to the side, in the golden jubilee souvenir books issued by the borough councils; most of them were dead, or survived pottering in back gardens, sitting in collarless shirts and waistcoats by kitchen ranges, seldom seen on the streets. Newer generations hadn’t heard of them, and they on their side nursed suspicions that the young men of today were spineless and spunkless, till the All Blacks did well on an overseas tour, or a war came and perhaps a local lad got a V.C. and then they thought, ‘There’s life in the old Coast yet’. In their day they had been hard-drinking, hard-swearing, boastful Irishmen who said sir to no man; they were a society on their own, and the laws of the rest of the country didn’t necessarily apply on the Coast, particularly licensing laws. The Coast of those days produced some hard-headed fighting politicians, Dick Seddon, Harry Holland, Jimmy O’Brien and Paddy Webb—it didn’t matter whether you agreed with them or not, they talked straight from the shoulder, and when they got into a squabble they fought like men, and you thought, ‘Well, they are keeping the old Coast’s feather up.’ But those days lived only in the memories of older men, one of whom every few months would take his place in the obituary column and be driven his last mile to the cemetery page 324 by the beach, with a column of his descendants and a few old cronies and delegates from local bodies who felt that they ought to pay tribute to a foundation citizen. Between the two wars, the Coast came to be very much like any other part of the country. More bush was cut and burnt and brand-new little suburbs began to push out from the ports, where people hid discreetly behind hedges or curtains; suburbs with no pubs. And they were still going up, with low fences now, and even no fences, but still no pubs. Only out of the towns did the Coast tradition live and there it had changed. After the depression, gold dredges were floated; to the far south a beef cattle industry was growing. Immigrants from Britain had come to the mining towns; in the saw-milling towns people came and went and there was only a handful of old-timers. The Labour government, which owed so much to the frontier humanism of those early West Coast Irish labourers, completed the process. New roads were laid, the old ones widened, straightened and tar-sealed; small airfields were laid out on the flats of the river-mouth towns. There was more travel to end from Canterbury on the other side of the Alps: now you could get to Christchurch between tea and bedtime; thirty years before it took you two days by horse-coach. And the men who had given such an impetus to the Labour Government that had changed the face of the Coast waited to die, lamenting the old days when a man was a man and stood no nonsense from any jumped-up whipper-snapper behind a desk, and watched with both envy and regret this new society of shorter working hours, freer money, and boredom. There seemed to be more yes-men about, more bossy little office-boys with shiny cuffs and shiny arses; and when they spoke their mind, they noticed people looking at them as if they were making public exhibitions of themselves. Even the present M.P.—old Bernie O’Malley—seemed to spend most of his time in Wellington these days.

Mike Cassidy was well in his sixties but didn’t look it. He had a reputation of being a shrewd lawyer, for charging exorbitant fees to those who could afford it, and nominal ones to those who couldn’t. He had never taken part in politics, yet in his day he had defended unions in industrial disputes, or pleaded for them in arbitration courts, most of them successfully. But since the end of the war, since everyone had been denouncing every strike or dispute as communist-inspired, and old Jimmy Teague who had been priest for the last thirty years, had been sermonizing more frequently on atheistic communisn [sic: communism], Mike had refused industrial cases. After all, he was getting on and should take things easy. He had made his pile and had no need to earn; he only took on cases he was interested in page 325 now. Like the rest of the old-timers who mourned over the modern generation he set no better example when his acquiescence was required where refusal might subvert church and state, and (unlike the less prosperous of his generation, who dragged out their days in old clothes between the Old People’s Home at Karoro and visits to married daughters) he lived quietly now behind a low hedge and venetian blinds in a new two-storey house in big but hardly frequented grounds on the Joyce estate, which in his youth had been a a hillside covered with bush.

Rogers had phoned for an appointment. He knocked and a brusque voice called, ‘Come in!’ and he entered the little office lined with old statute-books and books of law which looked as if they were never opened. Cassidy didn’t get up, he sat back from his desk and told Rogers to sit in an arm-chair covered with plush, worn and greasy at the top. ‘Rogers is the name?’ Cassidy said. ‘You’re Harry Rogers’s boy then? Used to be on the railway?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Oh, I knew him well. I rode to Hokitika with him in the cab of his engine once! I bet he never told you that! We had a night out that night—an Orphans’ Club do.’ He put his elbows on the desk and pressed his hands together. ‘Yes, we had some good old times, Harry and the rest of the gang. Well, those days won’t come again. Old Harry’s out of it now. Probably happier where he is, and all. Where’s the rest of the family now?’

Rogers told him where his brothers and sisters lived, what they were doing. ‘I don’t see much of them,’ he said.

‘Pity!’ Cassidy said. ‘A man should keep in touch with his family. Would you want a cup of tea now?’

‘I don’t mind.’

‘I’ve got no girl here this morning. I’m my own office-girl. Mind you, I’ve always voted for Bernie O’Malley, and I don’t care who knows it, but I reckon sometimes his crowd take things too far. All this forty-hour week business. My office-girl doesn’t work Saturdays but I have to. I told him so last week too. Ah, he just grinned. He says, “Mike, you’re getting fat and prosperous. Your principles are going to fat!” I says, “What about you?” Yes, what about him? He’s right, though. Old people see things different… Well, God help me, I don’t want to be bothered fussing round with teapots and gas burners. Can you make the tea?’

‘If you like—’

‘No, no, don’t bother now. Not at all. Look now, here’s four bob, go to Tommy Barlow’s and get a couple of bottles of Monteith’s, and we’ll have a man’s drink.’

page 326

Rogers remembered the boycott. ‘I’d rather not drink,’ he said.

‘Now don’t be silly now. This is my shout. Be off with you for that beer and I’ll be giving thought to your case,’ He stood up and pushed Rogers out of the door. Rogers didn’t go to Barlow’s; he walked a few hundred yards farther on to the one pub in the town that was selling sixpenny beer. When he came back, Cassidy said:

‘Ah, it’s Speight’s now. Why is that?’

‘I went to the Central. They didn’t have Monteith’s.’

‘Ah, this bloody boycott. I keep forgetting about it. Well, old Harry would have stuck up for the boycott, so I can’t complain if you do. And Speight’s is just as good a drink, only it doesn’t travel well…. Now, tell me about this case.’ He found two glasses in a cupboard. They had to be washed of stale beer. Then he poured Rogers a glass.

Rogers flushed and began an account of the charge against him.

‘Now, let me see,’ Cassidy said. ‘Herlihy’s the boy’s name. Would that be Mike Herlihy’s boy? … Ah yes, he didn’t come to much good. He was training for a priest, you know. Well, he didn’t seem to have the vocation. So he gave it up and then he seemed to lose all his interest in life, you know. A failure. He took to the beer. I heard his marriage wasn’t a success. Strange fullah, Mike. He had promise as a lad. You’d ha’ thought he’d go anywhere then. I used to say to myself, “He’ll be a bishop yet, will old Mike”,’

Rogers completed his account.

‘Well, my boy, I reckon it won’t be difficult to clear you of that now. It’s a horrible thing they’ve accused you of. They haven’t even got a scrap of evidence. You know, I wonder what the policeman up there was doing anyway to bring it to the court at all. I daresay the magistrate would dismiss it, but it’ll be better if we get the whole thing cleared up, otherwise people’ll have their suspicions still. We’ll reserve our defence, that’s what we’ll do, and it’ll pass on to the Supreme Court to come up in the next sessions, that’s about a fortnight from now.’

‘I can leave it to you then?’ Rogers asked.

‘Don’t worry now. Everything will be all right. It’ll be one of the easiest cases I’ve had….

‘Thanks, Mr Cassidy, I’m grateful.’

‘Not at all, not at all now.’


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.