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



‘What happened to the seaman?’ Rogers asked. He was sitting in the back seat of the doctor’s car, Flora beside him. They were driving beside the Grey River, back to Coal Flat. The river was full and muddy.

‘Probation,’ the doctor said. ‘He had to agree to get a job on a ship again and leave the country.’


‘More or less. He had deserted his ship.’

‘What about the watersider that pinched the timber?’

‘Two years in gaol.’

‘And the chap up for drunken driving?’

‘Driving licence suspended for a year and a £50 fine.’

‘Thos. Cameron won’t like that…. The seaman got off,’ Rogers said. ‘I’m glad. A strange little chap. That was a lenient sentence.’

‘The crime against property wasn’t treated so leniently,’ the doctor said.

‘No one ever has much sympathy for a thief,’ Rogers said. ‘But this judge seemed to be a bit more human than I expected.’

‘He has a reputation,’ the doctor said. ‘Last year in Christchurch he let a woman who was convicted for abortion off on probation. She was responsible for two women’s deaths. There were questions asked in Parliament. The Women’s Institute protested and the

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Women’s Division of the Farmers’ Union. He seems to have sympathy for the more sensational criminals.’

‘Any other judge would have let Cameron off with a tiny fine and a caution and rubbed it into the seaman,’ Rogers said.

‘They’d both have given the thief two years,’ the doctor said.

‘You were good, Paul,’ Flora said. ‘I was proud of you when you made that speech in the witness-box.’

‘A bit romantic,’ the doctor said. ‘I know you did very well, considering you had to conduct your own defence at such short notice, But you were too melodramatic. You didn’t really have to bring out all that about treating the boy for his neuroses.’

‘I don’t know how I could have avoided it. I’m not subtle enough. I’d sworn to tell the whole truth.’

‘You couldn’t expect a jury to take a sympathetic view of methods as unorthodox as yours.’

‘I had to bring that out. Things were looking pretty sticky there for a while. I thought I was going to be convicted.’

‘Only because you mentioned the boy’s drawings and all that. That would make anyone suspect the charge was true.’

‘How would you have done it?’

‘You could have stuck to time, date, place; refuted the actual charge or proved it impossible.’

‘I’m not a lawyer…. That lawyer was a nasty piece of work.’

‘Well, there’s one thing you can be sure of. You’ll have lost your job now.’

‘They won’t do that now. I’m cleared.’

‘Not after those admissions. The Education Board will be scared not to sack you.’

‘Surely they’ve heard of psychiatry before.’

‘They’ll say you’re not qualified. They’ll let doctors use it behind closed doors because we doctors are treated like priests used to be.’

The car rounded the bluffs at Wallsend, overlooking the river, and cruised down the hill, under a railway bridge, and up the hill to Stillwater. Ahead, to the left, the backs of the Paparoas were a soft murky mottled green in bright late winter’s afternoon sunlight.

‘We’re only a hundred miles or so north of the setting of Erewhon,’ the doctor said. ‘Illness was a crime there. Mental illness is a crime in this country. The mental hospitals are like prisons. If you think you can diagnose mental illness, isolate its cause and attempt to treat it, people think you’re contaminated yourself. Unless you’re doctor. The board will get a lot of anonymous and righteously indignant letters about you, when this case is read, so will the page 352 Minister of Education; Bernie O’Malley, too, I wouldn’t be surprised.’

‘He won’t help me,’ Rogers said. ‘Not even my father’s son. Well, I can’t worry now. That hurdle’s over, and I haven’t got my breath back yet. What about Peter? He’ll go back to that convent again…. Oh, Flora, if we’d thought of it before, we might have adopted him.’

‘You’re not serious, Paul. He’d be too much of a handful for me.’

‘It’s impossible now. The father wouldn’t allow it. Or the court.

Floral Do you think—? Would Frank and Doris want to adopt him? They’ll have to adopt if they want any children. I know they’d want to start with a baby, not a boy of eight. But in this case—?’

‘You could ask her,’ Flora said. ‘He’d be a handful. But Doris is like that. She likes having something to grapple with.’

‘I doubt if Herlihy would consent,’ the doctor said. ‘But it’s certainly worth trying.’

‘We’ll ask them tonight,’ Rogers said. ‘Do you know I haven’t eaten since seven o’clock? You two must be hungry too. Let’s stop at the pub here and have dinner. They are serving means again now, aren’t they?’

‘They charge sevenpence,’ the doctor said. ‘Let’s wait till we get to the Flat.’