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



The only reason Arthur Nicholson liked union meetings was that the men knocked off early for them. He swung the last box of coal round on to the rails and pushed it up the incline, trundling it along the unevenly fixed rails while his mate stayed to fix the jig—which controlled the boxes going to and from the coal-face fifteen feet above them at the side of the rails, where a pair of miners had been filling them. Arty pushed the box slowly, waiting for his mate to give an arm to it too. He stopped and looked back, holding the box still with one arm. The two miners caught him up; their eyes and teeth showed white under the lamps on their helmets; their faces and trunks were smeared with sweat and coal dust. They wore black singlets and trousers. They carried leather satchels at their shoulders.

‘Come on there you two, give us a hand!’ Arty said. ‘Sitting up there on your arses all day and me slaving my guts out down here!’

One of them walked on. ‘Ach, you bloody youngsters. You’re all the same—frightened of a bit of sweat.’

‘Why do you think we pay you truckers threepence a box?’ the other asked. But he pitted the heel of his hand against the rim of the box and began to push it up.

‘Let the lazy bugger do his own work,’ the first miner said. But he joined the other in pushing it, while Arty grinned, knuckles on hips, and shouted, ‘Watch out, Charley, it’ll run back on top of you if you don’t push harder! Look oop soonny!’ he called in mimicry of the underviewer who spoke as he had learned in Haltwhistle on the Tyne. ‘Look oop! Oh—oh—don’t overdo it now! Remember your wife and family! They don’t want you to drop before your time!’

One of them stopped. ‘I’ve got a — good mind to let the bugger run back and run off the rails. Just for your bloody cheek!’ They carried on pushing it.

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Arty stood grinning and his mate caught him up. ‘Take your time, don’t you, dig?’ Arty asked. ‘Leaving all the work to me.’

‘You got the miners working for you now, as well?’ his mate said. ‘Some people….’

The two miners fixed the box to the winch-rope and put a nail to the two wires to signal for the winch to start up.

‘That’s the last time I’ll do that for you, Nicholson,’ the miner said. ‘It’s only that you’re your old man’s son that I did it.’

‘Are you scared of him?’ Arty said. ‘I’m not.’

The four of them walked along the tunnel, past the main lay-by where another trucker was sending off the last boxes, and up the slant dip till they came to the place where the trolley could come for them, once the line was clear of boxes. There was soon a crowd of miners, truckers and timber-men. Some of them sat on a platform of coal dust caked with oil at the side, some of them stood; some of them were brooding with that conservation of energy and comment which heavy manual labour makes a habit; the youngsters barracked and outboasted one another loudly. Arty’s father sat quietly near, but Arty didn’t notice him. In the mine father and son were fellow-workers who called each other by their first names, and except in an accident, their relationship only belonged above-ground. These youths enjoyed showing off in front of their fathers and the men of an older generation from whom, as boys, they had hidden their mischief; checking men of all ages, boasting of a sexual callousness more imaginary than real, made them aware of the full taste of independence. The older men were sceptical and tolerant and remembered their own years of youth.

When the trolley came Arty pushed his way on to it. He collided with Joe Taiha, a young Maori chap who hadn’t long been in the pit. ‘Move along, you black bastard!’ Arty said.

Joe grinned and moved. ‘Who are you to talk about black?’ he said. ‘Right now you and me are both the same colour.’

Arty never thought about it till he was out of the bath-house, feeling fresh and clean walking in the mid-afternoon sun to the Miners’ Hall. He was with two of his mates, when his father passed him with Jock McEwan. ‘Here you,’ Ben said. ‘Not so much of this “black bastard” business when you talk to Taiha. Understand?’

‘Oh, Christ!’ Arty said, surprised and annoyed. Ben and Jock walked ahead and Arty spat.

‘Your old man thinks we work in a — Sunday school,’ one of his mates said, but Arty didn’t answer. He didn’t talk all the way to the hall.

As if he’d meant it seriously. It was just a way of talking. He page 29 never spoke to anyone without insulting them one way or another. Surely his father knew him by now. When Arty felt well-disposed towards anyone he insulted them or mocked them. That was all there was to it. Did his old man expect him to start being polite? Say, ‘Excuse me, Mr Taiha—oh, don’t bother, I’ll move along instead’?

His old man was too bloody serious, that was the trouble with him. As if Arty cared two hoots about the colour bar, one way or another. Colour bar, that was something you read about, happening in America and South Africa, not here. And anyway the Maoris were different from the nigs, a bloody sight more intelligent. And they liked you to be rough-mannered with them, they didn’t go for this pansy stuff: ‘So sorry, Mr Taiha, I didn’t notice you meant to sit here.’ Colour bar—more of his old man’s book stuff about class struggle and imperialism and exploitation and warmongers. All words that didn’t mean anything to Arty Nicholson. You went to work and you got paid once a fortnight and then you went and spent it. You only went to work because you had to get some money, and you did as little as you could get away with—your mates always kept you up to it, though; naturally they didn’t want to carry any passengers. But the boys weren’t overworked, there was plenty of work, an eight-hour shift and the promise of a seven-hour one; they had good conditions, and there was a Labour Government in. What did his father worry about? Some people were never satisfied. There were more important things than politics to think about—the Stillwater dance on Saturday, women, a game of billiards, a few drinks with the boys. That was life—not worrying about work all the time. You only enjoyed yourself after work.

Colour bar—God, Flora had some Maori in her. That made him grin. His old man might have some little black bastards as grandchildren. How would he like that, eh? Then he mightn’t be so keen to lecture him about colour bar. That is, if…. If…. He was jumping a few fences all right. He didn’t even know if Flora would have him. He hadn’t even asked her to go out with him regular. But that was his intention and tonight he’d ask her. He was tired of not knowing, tired of only thinking of her when he was in bed. If Arty wanted something, he wanted it soon or not at all.

The union meeting bored him. His father in the chair, Jock McEwan talking and getting worked up about another bloody watersiders’ dispute. The only time it brightened was when Jimmy Cairns said something; he would make you laugh whatever he did. They were amused too every time Pansy Henderson got up on a point of order, silly old fool. Talk, formalities, resolutions; what page 30 did it all mean? Well, it was better than working the full shift. Only they didn’t get paid for it. There they were, still pressing for a town water supply; they’d been doing that since he was a kid, and how far had it got them? Now they wanted another bus on a Friday night, and bus shelters. Bus shelters—that would mean regular stops.

Arty got to his feet. ‘If you ask me it’s a bloody silly idea,’ he said. ‘As it is the bus’ll stop anywhere to pick you up. If you have regular stops, a man’ll have to walk half a mile to catch it.’

The youths of his own age were moved to comment for the first time. They had been sitting like soldiers at a compulsory lecture. ‘That’s telling him, Arty!’—‘Lazy bastard! A walk’ll do you good!’

Jock McEwan got up, the secretary. He was a small man from Glasgow with red hair, a bit of a zealot—a bloody slave-driver, Arty often thought.

‘I’d like to know what the hell’s come over you youngsters today,’ he said. ‘When I was a lad we used our time to improve ourselves. We used to read and study to arm ourselves for the struggle. You youngsters spend all your time in the billiard room and the pub….’

‘Just a minute, Jock,’ Ben said. ‘Can you stick to the item under discussion?’

‘Well, if you’re too bloody lazy to walk a couple of hundred yards to a bus shelter, you might think of the women-folk with prams and babies and shopping-bags who have to stand in the rain.’

‘They can wait on their front verandas,’ another youth said.

‘The proposal is a stop every quarter of a mile or so,’ Ben said ‘So you’d only have to walk a couple of hundred yards at the most.’

‘You want to remember you won’t be young all your life,’ Jimmy Cairns said. ‘You want to think of old blokes like me.’ There were cat-calls from the youths at this contribution.

‘Do you see what we mean?’ Ben said to Arty. It gratified Arty that he spoke as if he was addressing any fellow-worker, not his son. Even so, he didn’t reply, only nodded.

The proposal was that they make representations to the manager of the local branch of the Railway Road Services; the vote was put and carried without dissent.

As Arty left the hall he felt more reconciled to union meetings. He turned down his mates’ invitation to come into the pub. He was still brooding on his father’s remark; a few beers under his belt and he might pick a fight with someone. Anyway he didn’t want his breath smelling tonight. He had to see Flora.

He had seen her often enough in the last seven or eight years, yet page 31 it was only in the last couple of weeks he’d taken any notice of her. It happened at the Stillwater dance one Saturday. He struck her in the Paul Jones, and seeing she was a good dancer, he’d asked her could he have the Destiny with her. The Destiny was the supper waltz, so they had supper together too. Dancing with her soft, rather slim body moving so lightly in front of him, following his steps intuitively—without any of those clashes and resentful apologies a man had to make whether it was his fault or not—he became conscious more than ever before of a woman who was somehow beyond his knowledge. He felt an unusual tenderness and wonder that humbled him, something you couldn’t boast about. He had taken girls outside the hall before, especially the ones who were known among the boys to be easy, for a cuddle in the bus, and sometimes more, if the night was fine, in a pozzy he knew of under the blackberries. If a girl hesitated, he took command; that was the principle he worked on. But with Flora he felt he would follow her. There was so much more to her—some small gesture, an intonation in her voice, would reveal depths and subtleties of life he had never before suspected.

It was strange the way the homeward bus trip was so different. Going there, they were a cheerful gang, laughing, singing the latest hits, taunting one another, all boys together with the girls joining in the fun. Going home they were more subdued, they were mostly paired off, and the boys who had missed out sat tired or drunk or disappointed in the back seat. The lights were out and no one threw off at anyone else, because he knew his own turn would come some day.

When Arty got out of the bus with Flora they walked round to the back of the hotel; the front door was locked, the back door left open all night.

‘Thanks, Arthur,’ she said, so softly, it struck him. So genuinely. Yet there wasn’t any come-closer in her voice, he noticed.

‘Can I see you again?’ He was glad he had to whisper, because it hid his strange humility.

‘The town’s not very big,’ she said. ‘We can’t help seeing each other.’

‘On our own though?’ He felt strangely daring, hoping he hadn’t said too much.

‘Tuesday then, after tea.’

‘Okay, Flora.’

‘Good night,’ and she was gone. It was only then that he realized he hadn’t attempted even to kiss her. ‘Good night,’ he said softly, but only to the night air, because she was inside now. He felt light- page 32 headed as he walked away. On the street he found a stone and ran behind it, kicking it, with his hands in his pockets, till he got to his gate. He felt fit enough to have gone on dancing all night; even so, he slept like a log.

So, now Tuesday was come, he got down his tea with such impatience that his mother commented on it. His younger brothers—still at Tech.—were trying to annoy him, but he only shouted at them out of habit. He was immune to irritation from them. His brothers didn’t know a thing yet; his mother was everyday, ordinary; if she knew much she didn’t let on. He went to his room and put his best suit on, with a clean shirt open at the neck, where a bush of fair hair sprang. His mother looked him up and down.

‘Hullo,’ she said. ‘Who’re you meetin’ tonigh’?’ She spoke with a Clydeside accent stronger than his father’s.

‘Oh, jus’ takin’ a stroll,’ he said casually.

‘I can see we won’t be havin’ you with us much longer,’ she said.

And the kids chimed in: ‘Why? Where’s he going?’

Then his father came in for his tea, fresh from the pub.

‘Who’s the bloody dude?’ he said with some admiration. Arty was both flattered and irritated by this attention. ‘It’s only Tuesday night, you know.’ Arty ignored him. ‘An’ while I think of it, don’t forget what I said about Jocy Taiha. No “black bastard” talk around here.’

This was too much for Arty. ‘Oh shut up, can’t you?’ he shouted, and squared up to Ben.

‘Now, Arty!’ his mother said. ‘Don’t speak to your father like that!’ But the two men ignored her, and she stood staring at them. His brothers stood agog. ‘Arty, mind your suit,’ she said.

‘Now say it again and see what you get,’ Arty said.

Ben looked him up and down without raising his arms. ‘My, you’re in fine fettle, son. You won’t settle much with your fists, you know. Some day you’ll try that once too often and you’ll come off the worse for it.’

‘Are you threatening me?’

Ben sat down at the table.

‘I don’t mean me,’ he said. ‘I won’t take you on. Someone else will some day, someone as young as yourself and a bit handier with his fists than you are.’

Arty lowered his fists. ‘You’re too bloody serious, that’s your trouble,’ he said. ‘Jocy Taiha’s a good mate of mine and I don’t need you sticking in your nose in talking brotherly love. You should ha’ been a bloody parson.’

‘You’ve got a lot to learn, son,’ was all Ben said.

page 33

‘Now get along, Arty,’ his mother said. ‘Ben, eat your supper.’

Arty left surprised that he’d established his manhood so easily in his own home.

He was feeling in fine form when he waited, as casually as he could look, dolled up in his best suit on a week-day, outside the post office over the road from the pub. Five minutes later Flora came out of the side-gate by the pub, looking round, pretending to be casual like him. Arty was a little disappointed she hadn’t got herself up as flash as she was at the dance. Even so she looked classy; silk stockings, a chocolate-brown skirt and a wine jumper. And that black glossy hair of hers in natural waves! He didn’t step out to meet her: that would make it too obvious. She came to him.

‘Where do you want to go?’ he said.

‘I can’t be out too late,’ she said. ‘Shall we go for a walk?’

That suited Art. Walking out with someone in this town was like a public declaration. She was announcing a permanent attachment.

They set off down the footpath between the fences and the road. Arty didn’t know how to start, what to say. For a while he felt proud and happy just to walk with this girl who had agreed to walk with him. It hadn’t struck him till now that it was so wonderful that she should want him the same as he wanted her. Or that up till a week ago they had passed each other frequently without a second thought; and here they were walking together.

‘Did you sleep all right Sat’d’y?’ he said.

‘You mean Sunday morning,’ she said. She pronounced it Sunday. ‘Yes, I always do. I was up at eight.’

He laughed. ‘That’s better than me. I wasn’t up till—till near midday.’ He had checked himself swearing. But he wasn’t sure with Flora: bragging about lying in on Sundays might be all right amongst the boys, but it might give her a bad impression. ‘Nothin’ else to do,’ he added in self-justification.

‘I had the breakfasts to get,’ she said. ‘I always let Mum lie in on Sundays.’ It was new to him to admire unselfishness, but it was good in a girl. ‘Then I went to church.’

‘Church!’ he said involuntarily, as if he didn’t believe her. ‘I haven’t been inside one in my life.’ Then he said: ‘That’s not to say I couldn’t start though.’

She didn’t comment and he wondered if he’d put his foot in it. ‘Just the way you’re brought up, I s’pose,’ he said. But that didn’t help, because she still didn’t say anything.

Her silence made him aware that her home life had been different from his. For the first time in his life he felt ashamed of his home. He didn’t know what he should be ashamed of, only that it wasn’t page 34 good enough to show her. How could he ask her round to his place? —to the house without paint, his father lying on the sofa in his socks, reading, the bickering kids, his mother always in the middle of baking or washing, the untidy kitchen? Yet what was wrong with it? He resented being made conscious of it.

They walked on for a while, and he tried again. ‘Have you been busy today?’

‘I’m always busy,’ she said. ‘I’ve been doing the washing for Mum today.’

‘I don’t know how she’d get on without you,’ he said, but she took it as flattery and didn’t acknowledge it.

‘How will she get on if you ever leave home?’ he asked.

‘Oh, I can’t see my leaving home for a while,’ she said.

Arty gave up, and walked sullenly, yet still gratefully, with her. They could see the hills across the valley turning soft people in the dusk. The peaks of the Alps were dissolving into a darkening indigo sky, with odd pink clouds tinged with lemon. ‘The hills are lovely tonight,’ she said. ‘Don’t you think so, Arthur?’

‘I never noticed them before,’ he said, shrugging. But it was true, they were beautiful. He had lived here nineteen years and never noticed them. It was one more thing he hadn’t been conscious of till he met her. He was flushed right through with a warmth and tenderness for Flora, such as he had never known for anyone. But his love had no tongue and when he tried to think of something to say, he only felt gawky.

There was no one about on the road, but it didn’t occur to him whether there might be. His hand felt for hers. She let him take it, but her hand was disappointingly hard and unresponsive. They stood in silence that was too tense for Arty till she said, ‘A penny for your thoughts, Arthur.’

That jolted him into embarrassment. ‘You’re putting me on the spot,’ he complained. Then impulsively he said, ‘Flora, how about it? Would you be my girl?’

Her few seconds of pause were agony to him. Finally she spoke quietly. ‘Arthur,’ she said. ‘I knew you wanted to say that. I’ve never encouraged you.’

‘I don’t care about that,’ he said. ‘Would you go out with me?’

‘Listen, Arthur, don’t take it badly. I’ve been thinking it over. I know it’s a hard thing to say, but it wouldn’t work out. We haven’t got much in common. I like you, Arthur, but it couldn’t go any further.’

‘Why, Flora?’

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‘I just know it couldn’t. Mum and Dad wouldn’t hear of it for a start.’

‘Why wouldn’t they?’

‘I just know they wouldn’t.’

‘Well, we don’t need to care about them. It’s how you feel I’m worried about.’

‘I wouldn’t go against them, Arthur.’

‘Then you won’t?’

‘Now don’t take it so hardly, Arthur. Everything about us is different. Our ways, the way we were brought up, everything.’

‘You mean I’m not good enough for you?’ he said angrily.

‘I don’t mean that, Arthur. I’m just being sensible, looking facts in the face….’

‘Then why did you come out with me tonight? You knew you were going to say this!’

‘Because I knew what would happen, Arthur. I wanted to spare you. Once Mum got wind of you being interested in me she’d have asked you round every night….’

‘What’s wrong with that?’

‘She’d keep rubbing it into you that your home life was different; she’d be always showing you up, to make sure that it didn’t come to anything. She’d make you feel small.’

‘What’s wrong with my home? I’m not ashamed of it. And if she’s as bad as that why don’t you walk out and please yourself?’

‘Arthur, you mustn’t repeat what I said. I like Mum. It’s the first time I’ve ever breathed a word against her. Because I’m not against her. She’d be right. She and Dad did bring us up properly. She’d be doing it all for me, Arthur.’

‘You mean I’ve been dragged up?’

‘Don’t be awkward, Arthur. I’ve only been trying to make it easier for you … I’ve been honest, Arthur. I’ve been straightforward. I couldn’t let Mum ask you round and see you made a fool of. I had to tell you myself.’

‘That’s decent,’ he said ironically. ‘I’m not good enough for you, that’s what you mean.’

‘Oh, Arthur,’ she said. ‘You mining folk are so blunt and crude. You never take a hint gracefully. You’re all so unpleasant about things.’

‘I’m only a common old miner; so that’s it!’

‘I know myself it wouldn’t work. I told you I’m just being realistic.’

‘Let’s go back,’ he said. They walked back quickly without speaking. At the pub Flora said, ‘Good night, Arthur,’ with an page 36 undertone that implied a tacit understanding, but Arty didn’t answer.