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



Though it was dark by now Arty couldn’t go home so soon. Dressed in his best he couldn’t pass off his excursion as something casual. His mother would have smelt something; she might have probed him or, what would be worse, she might say nothing and watch for clues. In any case he wouldn’t be able to settle in that kitchen, reading the paper or one of the westerns he usually read in spite of his father telling him they were trash and opium. If he went to the billiard saloon or any of the pubs the boys would twit him about his clothes. The prospect of a long walk by himself offered no relief, he was so wild with Flora that he could hardly bear his own company; yet he kept walking, not knowing where he was going.

He was so wild that he had forgotten for the time that he had loved Flora. Not good enough for her—who did the Palmers think they were? Hadn’t he a fit body like anyone else, good for a lifetime’s earning for her and a family? Hadn’t he a heart that would feel for her, a tongue to talk with her, a brain to plan for her, muscles to work for her, a body to embrace her? Did she want a film-star? It was his ways, she said, his bringing-up. Well, he wouldn’t change those for any woman. But she hadn’t even asked him to change; she had turned him down flat, there and then, as he was. She must have known he couldn’t change. Yet what was wrong with him? Did she want him well-mannered, smooth and sissy? She was as bad as his father, with his preaching. Or was it that he didn’t have enough money to suit her parents? Let her bloody well sink then, let her go without him. Some day, he hoped she would be sorry and he would have no pity for her: there would be other girls. Yet he knew it would be a long time before any page 41 other girl could do more than touch off a sour pang of longing for her.

He noticed now that he was passing a group of huts put up by the Mines Department to house single young men working in the mine. Without knowing why he headed under some hawthorn trees across the thick grass to Joe Taiha’s hut. He even knocked on the door, though roughly, before he pushed it open.

Joe’s hut was simple: wooden walls with two small square windows, a roof of corrugated iron, a bunk with a wire mattress, a plain table and one chair. At the end was a small stove, and from nails on the wall hung a saucepan, an oilskin raincoat and some working clothes. The bed was neatly made up. There was a suitcase under the bed, and in a fixed wardrobe without doors in one corner, hung Joe’s sports clothes and a selection of gaudy ties. The hut was lit by a hurricane lamp on the table.

Joe was washing up the enamel plates he had just used for his dinner. He was surprised to see Arty fling the door open and walk in without any over-hearty or abusive greeting, with only, ‘Good day, Joe’.

‘Ah, Arty,’ Joe said. ‘You just caught me doing the washing up. Some day I’ll have a woman to do this for me.’

Arty sat on the bed and Joe put the plates on the table, hung up a saucepan and spread the tea-towel outside the sill to dry. He pulled in a towel which had been drying during the day.

‘Will you have a cup of coffee and milk? I’ll just put the kettle on,’ Joe said. ‘Oh, wait a minute, I think the tin’s nearly empty. No, we’ll have a beer.’

‘Not out of a mug,’ Arty said.

Joe grinned and produced two glasses from his wardrobe. ‘I got these from Palmers’,’ he said. They drank while Joe chatted cheerfully about the mine and Coal Flat, and Arty only commented with grunts and brief questions. Arty found Joe’s company relaxing, and in a dim way he envied Joe his ease. He kept wondering if there was some secret the Maoris had. Joe seemed to be able to enjoy being alive, not just the better moments of life. His nerves were easy, almost lazy. Arty thought he was an easygoing chap, but alongside Joe he seemed to be a tense bundle of worries.

As far as Arty knew Joe came from Arahura farther south, on the coast. There had been a paa at Greymouth, twenty miles north, in the old days. But when they sold the land, the Maoris shifted to this town of unpainted wooden houses on one of the pieces of land reserved for them, and drew rents from their reserve at Greymouth. Joe had worked there on the gold dredge, then he had come to the page 42 dredge at Coal Flat; from there he went to the mine because the money was better. His girl lived in Arahura and he went home to her every week-end. He was saving up to get married. In a few months, he said, he was going whitebaiting in one of the rivers of South Westland, a region still hardly settled. He would make big money there.

‘By crikey, Arty,’ Joe said. ‘It’s not often the Maori bothers to gave up. It’s a hard job for me all right. But I got to get enough for a house. Then we’ll go up to my home.’

‘I thought you lived at Arahura,’ Arty said.

‘No. I’m from the North Island,’ Joe said. ‘Ohinemutu, at Rotorua. I’m an Arawa. I came down with my mates to see the sights. And then I met Kahu. My mates have gone back home. I get homesick now and again. Arahura’s not the same.’ He pronounced it differently from Arty. ‘We live better up home.’

At last Joe asked Arty what he had been wondering since he came in.

‘You look worried, Arty,’ he said. ‘You don’t often come to see me, oh?’ He said this with such simplicity that it didn’t offend Arty, as it would if one of his mates had said it. ‘This is the first time, Arty. Why did you come?’

Arty couldn’t answer directly. ‘You know the Palmers, Joe?’

‘They keep the pub,’ Joe said.

‘They’re Maoris. What do you reckon about them?’

‘Ah, no,’ Joe grinned gently. ‘They’re not Maoris, Arty. Old Mum, she got Maori blood in her all right, maybe quarter-caste. They’re paakehaa, Arty. She married a paakehaa. They live like white people. I bet they can’t even talk Maori.’

Joe’s easy face looked mildly scornful. ‘They’re proud, Arty, too proud to be like the Maori. They got money in the bank. Show me the Maori who’s got a lot o’ money in the bank, eh? Not in the South Island anyway. No Maori’s got a hotel of his own, eh?’

Arty kept watching Joe as he learned over from the chair, his arms on his knees; with his shining black wavy hair, his relaxed and lively good-looking face, his ready grin, his eyes that did not mask his feelings, he was so much more alive than Arty, and without being aware of it. Alongside Joe Arty felt self-conscious and habitually defensive, a man who was always posing before his mates. But as Joe talked he could feel himself relaxing slightly.

Joe’s eyes looked hurt suddenly. ‘One day I went in Palmers’,’ he said. ‘There’s no one else in there. Only Mum behind the bar. She said to me, “Come on Joe, we’ll have a tangi together.” Then she said something from a haka. She got it all wrong. She was insulting me!’

page 43

‘What’s wrong with that?’ Arty said. ‘She was letting you know she’s got some Maori too.’ He said this out of curiosity, because he wasn’t in any mood to defend Mrs Palmer.

‘She’s only part Maori. I’m all Maori,’ Joe said. ‘She was reminding me.’

‘How?’ Arty said. ‘What’s wrong with being a Maori?’ He remembered his father’s words now and felt foolish. He wished he hadn’t asked the question.

‘Don’t you think I’m ashamed of it! Oh no! I’m a full Maori and proud, too. You don’t understand what I say. Old Mum she meant that I’m still a savage, that’s what she meant. Just quietly, eh? Haka and tangi.

‘But you do have tangis when someone dies. In the North Island, ‘specially.’

‘You don’t understand what I mean, Arty. Haka and tangi; Haka that’s what we do when we welcome someone who visits us. Tangi we have when someone dies. A tangi isn’t celebrating. It’s being sorry. You don’t understand. I’m not ashamed. We still do those things up there, Arty. We’re proud of them. Down here … my girl couldn’t even speak Maori till she met me. I’m teaching her. It’s not what old Mum said, it’s the way she said it. What she meant was she’s got past all that sort of thing. She’s a bloody paakehaa now. She catches me when there’s no one to see, so she steps down to my level, just for a minute. That’s what she meant.’

‘You’re too thin-skinned, that’s all,’ Arty said, and Joe forgot about it. He grinned. But Arty brought him back to the subject.

‘What do you think of Flora?’ he said, resenting having to mention her name.

‘Well, you take Flora as a white girl, she’s a very nice girl, I think,’ Joe said. ‘She’s always very friendly to me, at a dance if I go to Stillwater. But usually I go home to Arahura to the dance. She doesn’t talk down to me, just that little bit, like old Mum. She talks friendly, only she keeps her distance. She’s not a warm-hearted girl.’

‘She just turned me down,’ Arty said, looking at the wall away from Joe.

‘What’s that?’ Joe said, grinning as if he wasn’t sure if Arty had made a joke.

‘I wanted her to go out with me,’ Arty said. ‘She wouldn’t.’ It humiliated him to have to tell this to anyone. Yet if he’d told anyone but Joe he never would have felt safe that it wouldn’t be blabbed around the town.

Joe looked steadily at Arty, his lips open in sympathy. ‘She’s been listening to her mother, I think, Arty.’

page 44

‘She said we’d been brought up different. Our ways were different. She wanted someone with more money, I s’pose,’ Arty said bitterly. ‘The bloody Nicholsons aren’t good enough for the Palmers.’

‘You’re only a common old miner,’ Joe said gently. ‘I’m only a common old Maori, eh? We’re both common. We got that in common, eh? Yes, the Palmers are a proud family. Not Flora, I didn’t think. I thought Flora was better. That other girl too—what’s her name? Doris. Doris—she married Frank Lindsay at the mine. Yes, I thought Flora would be better. That’s a pity. She’s got ambitious like her mother.’

‘It won’t worry me,’ Arty said. ‘There’s plenty more fish in the sea.’

‘You’re sorry now, Arty. But tomorrow maybe, you’ll be a little better. Then the next day. In a week you’ll be happy again. Ah, Arty, you want the Maori girl to make you happy. She doesn’t think about money and what’s your job and are you good enough, as long as she knows you love her and you can keep her and the babies.’ Joe’s mouth opened wide in a smile, thinking of his own girl-friend. Then his expression changed to one of tender curiosity. ‘Flora hurt you, Arty. You got no one to tell. So you come to see me, eh?’

Arty nodded. ‘Yeah,’ he said reluctantly.

Joe beamed and leaped from his chair. ‘Then we’ll get drunk properly!’ he said. ‘You and me. We’ll forget our troubles.’ He got out more bottles of beer and filled the glasses for, already, the sixth time. From under the bed he produced a guitar and he began to strum and sing lazily and pleasantly, while Arty listened. The songs were mostly current American song hits, yet he gave them a peculiar lilt that made them seem more human.

‘This one was composed by a woman from the East Coast,’ Joe said. It was Arohaina mai. Arty bawled the English words but he only got as far as, ‘Love walked right in …’ because he didn’t know the rest.

After a while Arty said, ‘Joe, when are you going whitebaiting?’

‘In August. Then I don’t come back to Coal Flat.’

‘I’ll go with you,’ Arty said impulsively. ‘There you go! I’ll go with you and we’ll go halves in everything!’

Joe beamed agreement and sang again. Now Arty joined in the singing, belatedly because he knew his coarse voice would be out of tune, but irresistibly because they were partners and were going whitebaiting together.

The noise of drunken singing brought chaps from the other huts page 45 who, Arty had no doubt, were only sniffing out some free beer. It pleased him perversely that they had to go back to their huts for mugs. He was jealous of their intrusion but he was happy again and took no offence. At about eleven he left them still singing and went home and slept immediately.