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

2

2

Flora wasn’t anywhere near so cool as she had made out to Arty. She had deliberately suppressed a strong desire for his manly young figure and the coarse simplicity of his affection. She kept telling herself she was only being sensible; but what she feared most was breaking with her family. There had been difficulties when Doris, her sister, had married Frank Lindsay who worked at the mine. One Doris in the family was enough. Nor had Arty been the first of the local chaps to take an interest in her. But she had always fended them off with her deliberate politeness—which never gave an impression of coolness because her face was so warm in colour, so ripe in its outlines, and her voice so sensuous in tone. Her inaccessibility had earned her a reputation of respectability. She was a girl most of the young men thought highly of, and her name was never nudged and leered over in bars and billiard rooms. Many a young man would have been glad to get her but not many had tried because she seemed to demand that a man should be on his best behaviour. The only model of better conduct they knew was one of suburban respectability and they avoided that like hypocrisy. Everyone knew them for what they were, and for a man to change his ways suddenly for a girl might expose him to the taunts of his friends. Yet no one thought of Flora as snooty, only distant.

When she came in from Arty, Flora’s coolness dissolved and she was full of conflicting emotions. It was a relief not to have to face the difficulties with her mother, yet she felt sorry for Arty. But how could she console him when she herself had hurt him, gone out with him intending to hurt him? She should have been easier with him—but then she had been so afraid of letting him see that she felt something for him. How stuck-up she must have sounded, but she hadn’t dared be otherwise. And it couldn’t have worked out. She had no wish to settle in Coal Flat, to have children in one of those ugly little houses without paint, without gardens, with a husband never going out but he would come back with beery breath, with children learning to swear and act rough from the other miners’ children. No, she wanted a man who would not take her for granted, would set her up in a new house in a suburb of a town, and work at a clean job. It could be all very romantic for a start, going with Arthur, she thought, but after a year or two the glamour would be gone and she’d be stranded in Coal Flat, saddled with a page 37 baby, up to her eyes in work, like any of the women of this town—gossiping, backbiting, outspoken, careless of their hair and dress and language, sometimes brawling in their kitchens with their husbands. It was as if she had shaken off a temptation, getting rid of Arty like that. There were better men, who had been brought up the same way as she had. And already, though he had hardly been in her mind since he had come, there was Paul Rogers.

Paul had never given any hint of wanting her, though before he had gone into the army, she remembered she had loved him in a moony, adolescent way. She didn’t feel the physical attraction to him that she had felt to Arty. Yet he was more fascinating, more difficult to fathom. He was educated, and Flora had great respect for anyone who was educated. She wondered what it would be like to be a schoolteacher’s wife? Would she have to take the girls for sewing? … But she checked herself. Paul was hardly five minutes in the house—two days, to be exact—and they hadn’t had more than a word together yet and here she was thinking things about him that she would be ashamed to own.

The parlour was empty. Through the wall she could hear the noise of men in the bar. She settled down in an arm-chair that was slightly battered and greasy from heads. Mum always said they wouldn’t get any new furniture till they got a house of their own again—the customers would only spoil it in a hotel. She picked up some papers; she pushed Truth aside: scandals and crime were too disturbing. The cable page of the Greymouth Evening Star meant nothing to her, except that she got the impression from the headlines that the Russians were being difficult at a United Nations meeting. She read the Local and General and the personal notes. Then she picked up Truth again, and in spite of herself, got deep in a divorce-case with adultery and drinking—parties and nude bathing and goodness knows what, a prominent radio sports commentator mixed up in it all too; she pored over it, pondering the strange things that happen in the world. Then she read the details of a horrible murder case, then of the trial of a woman abortionist; though she couldn’t put the paper down, she felt by now that she would have bad dreams that night. The world was a queer place, once you took the lid off…. With an effort of will she folded the paper up, put it under the cushion of the chair and sat on it. Then she picked up the Auckland Weekly News and read, more calmly and with growing admiration, an article on the habits of the two English princesses. She stared closely at a photograph, blurred with tiny dots, of Princess Elizabeth, and wondered if she ought to do her own hair that way: that hat—perhaps hats like that would come into page 38 fashion; she’d have to look out for them. How lovely it would be to be born a princess … but what a tiring life they must lead!—and all in the interests of their country.

Then the door opened and Paul came in. Flora looked around and smiled. Rogers grinned and stood over her.

‘What are you reading?’ he said. ‘Oh no! Not the royal family?’

‘Why not?’ she said in a hurt voice.

‘Well—’ Rogers hesitated. He knew what he thought, but he was impeded by that decision to conform, as much as he could, with what most people thought. ‘Well—they do take it too far, Flora. What have those princesses done for you and me?’

‘That’s not the way to look at it,’ she said. ‘They’re only young yet. The King and Queen have done a lot.’

‘What have they done?’ he said, grinning tolerantly.

‘They stuck by their people all through the war,’ she said passionately. She recalled a newspaper phrase that had struck her. ‘They shared the common danger.’

‘Why shouldn’t they?’ he said.

‘They could have gone to Canada,’ she said.

Rogers found it too difficult to soft-pedal. ‘Why should they have been privileged?’ he said. ‘They’re only ordinary people like you and me. Why should you admire them for doing no more than the British people did? The King and Queen never got bombed out.’

Flora, confronted by direct blasphemy of her dearest opinions, was at a loss and responded, like most of her countrymen in the same situation, with accusations.

‘Paul Rogers,’ she said. ‘You’re talking like a Communist. I thought the army would have cured you of all that tommy-rot.’

‘No, Flora, there you go,’ Rogers said. ‘How many times do I have to explain to people? I’m not a Communist, never have been, never will be. I’m anti-Communist, if you want to know. I’m a Labour supporter, that’s all….’

‘It’s nothing to boast of.’

‘I’m not boasting, Flora. I’m only stating my position. Every man’s entitled to his opinions, isn’t he? It’s a free country.’

‘Everyone doesn’t go round telling you what his politics are,’ she said.

‘Well, you forced me to.’

She didn’t say anything and he found his bearings again. ‘But all this royalty business. These newspaper articles. They treat them like film stars. I’m not against constitutional monarchy. But I reckon they should live more like ordinary people, that’s all. Live page 39 on a salary. Ride bicycles. Travel on trams and buses, like everyone else….’

‘That’s ridiculous,’ she said. ‘That’s being mean. They’re entitled to better than other people.’

‘They’re only ordinary people, only they were born into royalty. It’s not democratic to fawn on them.’

‘I’m not discussing it, Paul,’ she said. ‘You do talk a lot of tommy-rot. I only hope you won’t let Mum hear you talk like that, that’s all.’

‘Why?’

‘Well, you know Mum hasn’t got any time for Communists.’

‘But, Flora, how many times do I have to tell you, I’m not.

‘I can’t see the difference.’

‘I don’t think you even know what a Communist is.’

‘Trouble-makers, that’s what they are,’ she said. ‘Always stirring up strife, and strikes, and always asking questions. They can’t let well alone…. I believe in living in peace and helping people,’ she said more quietly. ‘You used to be like that, I thought anyway.’

‘I am, Flora. We both want the same things,’ he said. ‘Peace, justice, a society based on co-operation. We disagree on the way to get them.’

‘Well, I’m not discussing them, Paul. I know I’m right, and I’m not getting bogged down in arguing about it.’

‘Let’s change the subject,’ he said resignedly. But they found it impossible to talk of anything else, with the argument unresolved.

‘Why do you always have to be asking questions?’ she said.

‘You’re always disturbing things. Everything decent people take seriously.’

‘Oh, that’s silly, Flora. You’re making out I don’t believe in anything.’

‘You must be a cynic then. Making fun of the decent things of life, the things decent people believe.’

Internally Rogers heaved a sigh. For all her beauty, Flora was no better than other people. What could you do with people? he thought. How could you win people to a happy society against their own wills? How could you remove these prejudices, this refusal to ask questions? It made him feel superior even in his despair. What was the use? Wouldn’t it be better to conform? Or at least to pretend to?

‘I’m going to bed now,’ Flora said, and softly she wished him good night. By her tone he knew he was forgiven, yet he felt guilty like a naughty dog. Let them think what they like, and let them leave him alone. If he wanted to be left alone, then he’d have to take page 40 care not to provoke their accusations. Flora would no longer call him a cynic. But that was what he would be then.

Flora undressing asked why it had had to happen like that. She had hoped vaguely that she and Paul could have talked amicably, revealing themselves, warming to each other. But at first impact they had squabbled like children. Would he take much notice of her again? Perhaps there was something in what he said. Next time she ought to listen before she let off steam.

Rogers in bed kept seeing her hurt flushed face, kept sensing her spirited temper. It recurred to him with a new wonder how beautiful she was.