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 329


Rogers sat in a little room off the courtroom, waiting. It evidently wasn’t a busy session of the Supreme Court, since there were only four in the room; but then there never was much serious crime on the Coast. There was a young pale fellow, no more than eighteen, with plentiful hair slicked back in a duck’s-arse cut, presumably an English seaman. There were two men of middle age; one of them shifty-eyed and non-committal in a shabby overcoat, the other a bald-headed man in a prosperous suit, with his hat on his lap. He tapped the floor with the toe of one shoe, and occasionally drummed his fingers on his hat; spasmodically he loosely pursed his lips, and whimbled a few bars of a tune. He looked as if he wanted to demonstrate that, no matter how much the rest of the company might belong there, he certainly didn’t. It transpired later that he was facing a charge of drunken driving. He had knocked down a woman cyclist who was in hospital.

Rogers made to light a smoke. The businessman pursed his lips and shook his head. ‘Not allowed, old boy,’ he said.

The English seaman turned with bland surprise. ‘Cor!’ he said. ‘Cawn’t ye do anythin’ rahnd ‘ere?’ He smiled knowingly and exposed a butt held inwards between his thumb and index finger, ‘Cawn’t see it, ye see,’ he said. ‘On’y the smoke. That don’t worry them.’

The businessman emitted breath from his nose in disapproval. The other middle-aged man’s face refused to express comment. He, it turned out later, was up for stealing timber from a railway-yard and corrugated iron from the wharf.

The policeman outside the door looked in. ‘Here, no smoking’ cock!’ he said to the seaman who grinned and muttered, ‘F—in, ’ell.’

‘It’s times like these you need a bloody smoke,’ the thief said with wry grimness, breaking the ice.

‘It’s senseless,’ Rogers said.

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‘They jus’ like rubbin’ it into ya, that’s all,’ the seaman said.

‘Well, the law’s got to be respected,’ the businessman said. ‘We’re not in a pub, you know.’

Then the policeman put his head in again. He was young and obliging. Perhaps he had learned that policeman are social outcasts from the society that hires them to protect its lives and property, that they have more contacts with their victims than with law-abiding folk. Perhaps the courtroom was one of the few places where he was approached for directions and generally looked up to. Anyway, he said, ‘It’s all right by me if you want to have a puff. But watch out for the sergeant. I’ll kick twice on the door if he comes.’

The seaman gave Rogers a sidelong knowing look of triumph, as if he had worked this. He felt in his pocket for his dog-end, and accepted a cigarette from Rogers. The policeman looked in and called the businessman’s name. Rogers was surprised that though he hadn’t recognized the man, he knew the name—he was the owner of a big drapery store. He stood hastily and strode out briskly as if to demonstrate to the judge that he was only too willing to co-operate with the law, to show these anonymous criminals that he could take his medicine even if it might be more than justice would warrant.

‘Thomas bloody Cameron,’ the thief said. ‘He’ll get off.’ He jerked his head up in a very knowing motion. ‘A fine and a caution. You’ll see. Not even his driving licence taken off him.’

‘What’s your trouble, mate,’ the seaman said.

He shrugged. ‘Just helpin’ meself to a bit o’ timber an’ iron.’ The seaman looked at the door as if to warn him. ‘It don’t matter if he hears,’ the thief said. ‘They got proof. Be lucky if I don’t get two years.’

‘Two year!’ the seaman said. ‘Cor, I ’ope I don’t get that,’

‘A man’s a mug,’ the man said.

‘You weren’t careful enough,’ the seaman said. ‘There’s no crime in breakin’ the law, it’s bein’ caught that’s the crime. This country’s dead easy for liftin’ things. Ye can walk right on to the docks ‘ere, an’ no one will awsk ya what yer business is. Not like ‘ome it ain’t, flippin’ ‘igh walls abaht the docks, the law on the gates. Not that I ever went in for that m’self. Just been noticin’, like.’

‘They get you jis’ the same,’ the man said. ‘Find it in yer backyard. The neighbours seen me building a new back shed out of it. There’s no secrets in this town.’

‘That’s w’en y’operate single-’anded. Y’ave to be organized. Get page 331 transport to take it away w’ere no one will know different, see. Ain’t no sense in jus’ liftin’ enough to build a f—in’ shed with. That’s evidence, permanent evidence. Ya gotta send it. Not that I’ve ever ’ad anythin’ to do with it.’

‘I only took it for the back shed,’ the thief said. ‘I don’t make a business of it. Couldn’t have paid cash for it. Put a fiver on a horse, thought that might bring in enough, but it came fourth.’

‘This country’s too slow for me. Get back ‘ome I will soon—I ’ope. ‘Ad a letter from the old girl this week. Said w’en am I comin’ ’ome she did. Wants ‘er wanderin’ boy back again. Cor, I ’ope they deport me. Then I’d get ‘ome, see?’

‘Where’s home?’ the thief asked.


‘Never heard of it.’

‘Camberwell w’ere the beauties come from. Sahth Lon’on it is. Shouldn’t mind bein’ there right nah, be just abaht eleven o’clock las’ night. Be jus’ comin’ aht o’ the Odeon on Denmark ‘ill I would, me an’ my girl—or over at the palais—on’y she don’t write to me no more.’

‘What are you up for yourself?’ the thief said.

The seaman grinned with shrewd self-deprecation.

‘Playin’ rahnd with a girl under age,’ he said. ‘Tahn bike, they called ‘er up at the village where I was. As if I was the on’y one. On’y no one else was game to admit it. On’y went after ‘er m’self w’en I knew she was easy, an’ she f—in’ split on me. All these Noo Zealanders. Frightened to get their names in the papers they are. Cawn’t blame them really. But I thought my mate would ‘a ’elped me aht. Said ‘e ‘ad too good a job in the mine. If ‘e’d admitted it, the sentence would ‘a’ been lighter, see.’

‘You deserve all you get for that,’ the thief said. ‘I’ve got no sympathy for anyone that touches kids.’

‘Cor, she was no kid, mate. Well-developed she was for ‘er age. Useta fling ‘er charms abaht she did, jus’ tryin’ ta get the boys worked up…. She ain’t that much younger than me.’

The thief didn’t comment; he sat in sullen silence, morally beyond further intercourse with this young opportunist. Rogers was irritated by him. He had his own case to worry about. He stared at that Brylcreem’d mop of fair hair which before the morning was out he’d be shaking from his lips. Even while he was looking the seaman unconsciously took a comb from the pocket of his jacket and ran it through the hair. He had a soft pallid skin which seemed to have escaped exposure to sun and wind. Perhaps he was a steward; no, in the engine-room, more likely. What was so noticeable was his alert- page 332 ness, the muscles of his face were rippling into new responses as his eyes darted cheekily to size up every new factor that came into his surroundings. Not like the wooden face of the New Zealander on his other side, and, Rogers supposed, of himself.

Rogers supposed that he couldn’t help himself, but yet everything he said offended him. It was really vitality, not goodness; a kind of innocence that recognized no principles, only expediency. He was a trim animal haunted by his boyhood in the sink-or-swim of a huge commercial city. Camberwell—was it acres of drab dusty rows of brick houses such as he had seen in the films? This boy was like an antelope, eyes and ears pricked for danger, scenting his way by fear and cunning through the outskirts of the jungle. There was something horrifying about him. If he made Rogers feel green and provincial, he also made him feel upright and clean, and a little smug.

‘You’d ‘a’ swore she were seventeen,’ the seaman said. ‘That’s what she said she was. ‘Ah was I to know different? I don’t ‘old with touchin’ them under age m’self if it comes to that.’

He turned to Rogers again and said, ‘W’at abaht you, mate? W’at are you ‘ere for?’

Rogers blushed. ‘Something I didn’t do,’ he said.

‘Cor, a wise one, eh? Not lettin’ on. If ya plead not guilty ya want a good lawyer. I couldn’t afford a lawyer. ‘The government’s got me one. You might get off.’

‘I should. I didn’t do it.’

‘W’at’s the charge?’

Rogers looked at the wooden-faced thief staring across the room, with the end of a rolled cigarette stuck on his lower lip. ‘I’m not saying just now,’ he said. ‘It’ll be in the papers.’

‘Won’t see no papers where I’m goin’,’ the seaman said.

All three sat silently into the afternoon, the two New Zealanders sullenly, the Londoner subdued but watchful. Then the policeman kicked twice on the door and they hastily stubbed and pocketed their cigarettes. A sergeant put his head round the door and called the thief’s name. He stood up and walked out, slouching a little. ‘You been smoking?’ the sergeant said to the seaman.

‘It’s me breath,’ the seaman said. ‘It’s that cold in ‘ere ye can see yer breath. Look at me, fair shiverin’ I am.’

The sergeant looked at him with generous contempt for one who could think him so credulous. ‘Don’t let me catch you, that’s all,’ he said, and went after the thief.

The seaman looked sideways at Rogers with that mischievous knowing grin. You could almost hear him think, ‘Crawfty, eh?’

page 333

‘He didn’t believe that story,’ Rogers said feeling superior to this simple boy. Peter Herlihy could have invented a more convincing lie.

‘Nuh, I know he didn’t,’ the seaman said, looking superior to this slow-witted colonial. ‘That’s the ‘ole idea. Tell ‘im a story so full of ’oles ye could water the gawden with it, and it puts ‘im in a good mood, see. ‘E ’umours ya then.’

‘It might work while you’re young. Do you always live like that?’ Rogers asked. ‘Working on people’s minds.’

‘Oh yerss, ya got to, mate,’ the seaman said, fair bubbling with philosophy. ‘Live by yer wits if ya want to keep aht a trouble. One thing abaht Lon’on, it shawpens yer wits. No good at school, I weren’t, not at readin’ an’ sums an’ all that, but ya learn to be quick. You Noo Zealanders are dead easy for it.’

‘You didn’t keep out of trouble this time.’

The seaman shrugged with good humour. ‘Nuh. Di’n’t keep me wits abaht me. Stawted drinkin’ in this country. Never touched it at ’ome. Not worth it. Dulls yer wits too much. Just awsk my ole man.

Well, I don’t suppose I shall get any beer w’ere I’m goin’.’

‘You’ll be happy,’ Rogers said, slightly indulgent.

‘’Appy! I suppose I shall ‘ave to make the best of it… ‘Ere, that copper won’t ‘car ya, w’at are you ‘ere for?’

‘Worse than yours,’ Rogers said blushing. ‘They say I interfered with a little boy.’

‘Cor!’ The seaman eyed Rogers shrewdly with disapproval. ‘I don’t ‘old with that, like. Different when two blokes is old enough to please theirselves.’

Rogers gave up; he couldn’t cope with these comments. This lad no sooner infuriated you with one offensive remark than he was making another. He wanted to protest but he couldn’t find words.

‘Did ya do it?’ the seaman asked.

‘No,’ Rogers said emphatically.

‘I don’t believe ya did at that,’ the seaman said, as if it was quite a concession to take a man at his word. ‘Ah come they pinched ya for it then?’

‘It’s a long story,’ Rogers said. ‘I’m a teacher. The boy’s a bad case. I got on the wrong side of him, and he made up this story. I’m sorry for him.’

‘W’at are ya sorry for him for then? ‘E got ya into trouble.’

‘He’ll be shown up to be a liar and he’ll get it from his old man. Everybody’ll be down on him.’

‘Ya don’t want to be too sure of that,’ the seaman said. ‘Ya might ’ave quite a job to prove ya didn’t do it. Ave ya got a good lawyer?’

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‘As good as I’ll get in this town. It’ll be easy to prove he’s making it up. But it involves other people, you see. I don’t want to mention their names.’

‘W’y don’t ya want to mention their names?’

‘One of them’s a teacher at the same school. She might have a breakdown if this came out. The other is a pal of mine—or was.’

‘Ya cawn’t worry about that, mate,’ the seaman said. ‘It’s you or them. Anyway they didn’t touch the kid, did they?… Well, nothin’s going to ‘appen to them. Jus’ get their names in the papers, that’s all. You might do time. Cor, that’s friendship that is. Oo d’ya think you are—Jesus?’

‘It’s the woman I’m worried about most—not that she’s any friend of mine. The lawyer reckons I’ll have to bring this up. But he says I mightn’t have to mention any names.’

‘You Noo Zealanders again, ya don’t like splittin’ on yer mates, do ya? Wouldn’t think twice abaht it I wouldn’t. An’ ma mates wouldn’t blame me either. Ya got to look after yerself. Like my mate nah—’e wouldn’t come aht an’ say ’e’d been with this pawty o’ fifteen but I don’t blame ‘im.’

‘Well, that wouldn’t have done much good,’ Rogers said. ‘What about the girl? Surely she’s got a right to be considered.’

‘’Er!’ the seaman said. ‘Nothin’s gonna-r-’appen to ‘er. She’ll be up Blackball still—still flingin’ ‘er se-ductive chawms abaht, that’s what she’ll be doin’. On’y no one’ll touch ‘er nah, not for a few months anyway, w’en she turns sixteen. Cor—why din’t I arrive in Blackball six months later? I might get two year nah. It don’t work aht…. Don’t worry abaht ‘er—she won’t be doin’ no time.’

‘Well, take another case,’ Rogers said. ‘Where there’s no third party involved. You’d have liked your mate a lot more if he had stuck by you.’

The seaman said, ‘Yerss, I suppose I should ‘ave. But ya cawn’t expect it. Anyway ya don’t do things jus’ to make people like ya. That’s soft that is. A luxury. All right for them that can afford it. You’re not in any position to afford it, mate.’

‘I’ve had a softer life than you, I suppose,’ Rogers said.

‘It won’t be too soft for you if you get time. Nuh. Ya don’ want to be worryin’ abaht this kid or this other teacher—it’s them or you, an’ no one else’s gonna look after you.’

It wasn’t long before the seaman was called. ‘Wish me luck, mate,’ he said. ‘An’ good luck y’self, too.’

Rogers sat alone waiting. He hadn’t wanted to give that away in court, about Don and Miss Dane or about Miss Dane hitting Peter.

page 335

Cassidy said he would have to. But he couldn’t have thought it important or he’d have asked Miss Dane to be a witness for the defence. Miss Dane had gone on her holidays. But what a shock she’d get to come back and find her secrets advertised in the papers. No, it was a breach of faith. Yet he had to defend his innocence, the seaman had been right about that. Rogers gave up trying to decide: best leave it to his lawyer, he would know what to do. Yes, and Mike Cassidy would understand why he didn’t want other people dragged into the slime.

After a while Mike Cassidy pushed through the door. He was wearing a heavy belted new overcoat and a hat of broadish brim; they made him look flashy, like an old man struggling to keep up with the times: it was odd in an old stalwart of the town.

‘You didn’t tell me you were a communist,’ Mike said accusingly. He sat on the bench sighing and spread his legs, leaning forward. He looked unhappy with himself.

Who told you that?’ Rogers said.

‘Well, I’ve been hearing things about you all right. Dinnie Flaherty from Ahaura was telling me you were a communist now. He said you’d deserve all you get. He said you’d been teaching the kiddies a lot of godless nonsense about things they shouldn’t be worrying about at their age.’

‘Well, Father Flaherty’s changed his mind then. He told me he wouldn’t interfere.’

‘So it’s true then.’ Mike looked more at ease now.

‘Is what true? You’ve got everything mixed up, Mr Cassidy. I didn’t teach anything like that. I answered this boy Herlihy’s questions without evasion. And I’m not saying whether I’m a communist or not, though some of my friends are and I’ve got a lot of respect for them.’

Mike looked troubled again. ‘If I’d known I would never have accepted your brief in the first place. I’ve made it a rule now never to take up the case of a communist.’ The way he stared at Rogers he seemed to be pleading with him to understand the necessity of this decision, as if he wasn’t accusing Rogers of something but Rogers was accusing him. His face kept working, his eyes kept shifting: again it was odd in an old stalwart of the days when the West Coast was free and frank. He said, ‘You can have the case remanded, you know, and get another lawyer.’

Rogers felt a kind of moral advantage. ‘Well, I’m not answering your question, Mr Cassidy,’ he said. ‘You’ve no right to ask. It shouldn’t make any difference to your case. This is supposed to be a free town in a free country. And what’s it got to do with Father page 336 Flaherty? When did I do him any harm? Did he ring you specially about this, or did you just happen to run into him?’

Mike’s eyes shifted again. Then, as if he wasn’t satisfied with his case, he stared sharply again at Rogers and said with ready moral rectitude: ‘And you didn’t tell me you were a conscientious objector in the war either. That’s what Bernie O’Malley says to me. What I say is if a man can’t find the guts to fight for his country, he can’t expect to enjoy his country’s justice. Now then?’

‘You knew that when I called on you,’ Rogers said. ‘You must have. The whole town knew…. That’s not the reason.’

Mike didn’t answer. He got up and put his hands in his overcoat pockets. ‘Well, young fullah, I can tell you I won’t be happy about taking your case, My heart won’t be in it at all. You haven’t convinced me. I thought I’d just give you a second chance and that’s why I came down hoping you’d be able to tell me it was all a misunderstanding. Now tell me now—it is, isn’t it? Isn’t it all a mistake? Tell me and I’ll put my heart into it.’ He pressed Rogers’s shoulders and his eyes again were pleading.

‘I’m not answering, Mr Cassidy,’ Rogers said. ‘You make me feel that if I did I’d be selling out. If that’s the way you feel, I don’t want your services. I’ll defend myself.’

‘Right!’ Mike said, almost with relief. ‘On your own head be it…. It’s a big decision…. There won’t be any fee, you know,’

Nevertheless the prospect daunted him. His position was serious now. How would he defend himself? What if, from sheer ignorance of the law, he wasn’t able to prove the allegation false? He didn’t want a remand; he wanted to get it over and done with. He began to sweat with worry, and regardless of the sergeant’s prohibition, lit a smoke, though it didn’t help him.

‘Mr Cassidy! Before you go, can you tell me one thing?’

‘What would that be now?’

‘If I’ve got to defend myself, when am I allowed to speak? Can I question the witnesses?’

‘Ah now,’ Mike said very willingly. ‘You can question the witnesses and you can sum up for the defence at the end. They’ve got no evidence, you know that. You know more about what went on than I do. It’s an easy case.’


‘Well, son,’ Mike said, turning round as if looking for something but not sure what it was, ‘it’s a pity. It’s a pity. Ah, if old Harry were here now. He’d make you see some sense. Ah….’ He drifted into a sigh for the lost days when a man was a man and spoke his mind out and nobody hindered him, when fair was fair and there page 337 was none of this double-dealing. ‘Everything has its day,’ he said. ‘All this trouble will be over some day too. But that’ll be after my time. We’re rooted in the past, that’s the trouble, Paul, stuck in the past like bloody old stumps in a swamp. We can’t change, the swamp’s got at our roots and drowned us. It’s up to the young to do something now.’ Then abruptly he pulled himself out of his reverie, put on his hat, shook hands and said, ‘Well, good luck, son. It won’t be a difficult case for you. Good luck now. Good luck.’

Rogers watching him go felt sorry for him; he was looking at a broken man, and one who knew he was broken.