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



Nora Herlihy crept uncertainly down the steep narrow track and felt her way in the dark to the back door. She stood quivering and hesitant, looking at the crack of light under the door and listening. There was no sound, only an occasional splutter and hiss from the coal fire. Then she heard her mother cough. Inadvertently Nora knocked, timidly and sharply. She heard a chair move.

‘Who’s that?’ her mother called in alarm. Nora did not answer.

‘Who is it?’ she called again, the note of alarm more prominent in her voice, ‘Go away! Or I’ll call the police. Is it Nora’s bastard? Who is it?’ She was up now and moving heavily to the door. She opened the door three inches, placing her weight against it, and peered round it. Nora stood there without speaking. There were tears in her eyes.

Mrs Seldom did not move for fully a minute. Then she took her weight from the door and opened it another few inches. ‘Well, Nora Seldom!’ she said slowly. ‘Nora Seldom! I wouldn’t have known her.’ She walked unevenly back to her chair by the fire. ‘Ah yes, she’s a changed gel now, my God, she is.’

Nora pushed open the door and closed it carefully behind her. Mrs Seldom did not offer her a scat, and she pulled a hard kitchen chair from the table and sat by the fire, four feet from her mother. Mrs Seldom stared at the fire. ‘The years go by, and Ned is in his grave,’ she said, ‘but still the ones that are in the right will see justice done. Ah yes, they’ll live to see their wrongs put right. I always said that. Yes, I always said that.’

Nora sat, her eyes glistening, but making no sound. Her mother turned and eyed her triumphantly, addressing her for the first time, ‘It’s a pity Ned isn’t here to see you,’ she said with some bitterness,

‘Yes, it’s a pity. But I wouldn’t be so sure he isn’t. Oh no, make no mistake about that, Ned’s not missing anything. Ned’s taking it all in…. We’ve got our wish, Ned; yes, we’ve got our wish, like I always knew we would….’

page 361

Nora broke down. ‘Oh, Mum, stop it!’ she cried.

‘Ah now, young lady, don’t start laying down the law the minute you cross the doorstep. Oh no, that’s not for you to do, that’s my place, not yours. Are you there, Ned? Ah yes,’ she almost chuckled heavily, ‘Ah yes, Ned’ll be taking it all in, that he will. I always knew Nora would come back to us, Ned. I always knew. I’ve been living for it all these years and now it’s come true.’

‘Oh, Mum, I had to come and see you,’ Nora said desperately. ‘I’m leaving Mike!’

‘Ah, you’re a sorry gel now, Nora Seldom,’ her mother said. ‘Ah yes, I knew it would come to this. I could ha’ told you what would happen, every bit of it, the day you walked out so hoity-toity after that Doolan bugger. Yes, I would have bet you ten pounds on it, and I’d have got my money back. You’re a sorry gel now, Nora. Ah no, you came to no good running after that one.’

‘Mum, I’m leaving him now, and that brat of his too. I can’t stand it a minute longer. It was all a pack of lies about that schoolteacher. The boy made it all up. Christ Almighty, the town hates us enough now without him showing us up like that. A pack of bloody fools we look now, God knows. And I asked him, Mum, I asked him long ago to own up if it was a pack of bloody lies, and he denied it, he said he was telling the truth, and Mike the bloody fool encouraged him. I won’t be with them a minute longer, Mum. I bloody near flayed him, Mum. I gave him the hiding of his life when he got in. And Mike didn’t interfere. I don’t know where he went. Crawled up to the pub, I suppose, like a bloody mongrel with his tail between his legs, to get drunk and then come home and take it out on me. Well, he won’t be taking it out on me again! I’m not staying there, Mum.’

But it was plain that Mrs Seldom, who didn’t read the paper, didn’t know about the court case, ‘I knew you’d leave him, Nora.’ she said proudly but gently. ‘I knew Nora would come back. Ah Ned, you haven’t got long to wait now. No, I haven’t got long to go now, Ned. I’ve lived to see justice done, and when that’s done I can give up the ghost. It won’t be long now. I knew you couldn’t stay away for long, Nora. I knew you’d see reason after a time. Ah, you thought you’d be stubborn, didn’t you? You thought we’d ha’ got weak and given in. But we could be stubborn too. Oh yes, Ned and I were determined. By Jesus, we were.’ She leant over and lifted the big dusty black-leaded kettle on to a hook over the fire and lowered the hook. ‘We’ll have a cup of tea, Nora,’ she said. ‘It’ll be the first cup of tea you’ve had here for a long time. You’re the first from Coal Flat since the strike Nora, and that’s eighteen years now. Oh, page 362 I don’t make a vow lightly, Nora. No, not lightly. There’s not a soul from Coal Flat has had a cup of tea in this house, since the strike. Only Paul Rogers, Nellie Rogers’s boy, she that I was in hospital with, and he doesn’t come from Coal Flat. He’s a good boy, Nora, but he doesn’t come to see me like he used to. I think he’s got a young lady, from some of the dredge folk. P’raps I’ll see Nellie Rogers again too.’

‘Did you know him, Mum?’

‘Who? Young Paul Rogers? Ah, Nora, he was my messenger often enough. He used to get things for me in town. Yes. It’s only a month or two since he ordered some coal for me. Yes, I said, “It’s not my place to go to the Mine Office for coal, Paul Rogers. It’s their place to come to me.” No, it was not my place. So he didn’t say anything, but he must ha’ gone away and given them a piece of his mind for the coal came the next day. Yes, I knew I could count on Nellie Rogers’s son.’

‘It was him all the fuss was about,’ Nora said. ‘It was him Mike took to court, and Peter told all that pack of stinking lies about.’

‘You wouldn’t expect that Doolan bugger to do any good to a friend of mine,’ Mrs Seldom said, ‘or any bastard of his either. No, an enemy of mine couldn’t be a friend to Nellie Rogers’s son.’ Suspiciously she asked, ‘What did he take him to court for?’

‘Oh, Mum, I can’t tell! It was terrible. It was all a pack of bloody lies!’

‘Did he get off then?’

‘Yes, he got off. And we’re shown up as a pair of fools that’d listen to any pack of lies that brat’d make up.’

‘Ah yes, they’d have to let Paul Rogers off. They couldn’t do anything to him on the word of that Doolan or his bastard. It wouldn’t be right. No, it wouldn’t be right.’

‘Oh, Mum, don’t talk about it!’ Nora said, frustrated that her mother should understand so little of what she had come to tell her. She bent forward and broke into bitter tears, all the bitterer because it hurt her pride to cry. Her mother sat back proudly and watched her, as if preening herself in her hour of triumph. ‘Ah, tears is it? Yes, tears it would have to be, Nora; tears for the hurt you did to your elders, tears for Ned’s early grave, tears for disobedience. Crying won’t make it better, Nora, but crying it had to come to.’

‘I wish I’d never left home, Mum!’ Nora cried. ‘I wish I’d never set eyes on the bugger. He wasn’t good to me. He didn’t treat me right. He had no respect for me. He even went back to his bloody drinking after he’d promised to knock it off for me.’

‘We knew what was right for you,’ Mrs Seldom said, ‘Ned and I. page 363 We wouldn’t see you throwing yourself away. But you wouldn’t listen. Oh, you were determined. But we were determined too. It’s a pity you didn’t listen to us then, Nora. It’s late to be listening now.’

‘I didn’t want any kids from him, Mum. It’s terrible to raise a kid to jeer at you. That’s what he did. That boy aged me early. He was the plague of my life, and Mike wouldn’t put him in order. He was a bloody sight worse when he came back from the convent.’

‘You chose your own fate, Nora, and fate can be nasty medicine. But it teaches you in the end. Ah, Nora, why didn’t you listen to Ned and me?’

The kettle boiled and Nora, suppressing her tears, got out the cups and saucers, the milk and sugar. She made the tea in the big old-fashioned teapot with its broken lid replaced by the lid of a cocoa-tin, while her mother proudly and silently acknowledged her help. She was disconcerted that her mother hadn’t abused her as she had expected.

‘I left him there howling and smarting,’ Nora said. ‘I don’t care if I never see him again. He’s Mike’s to worry about now. He can have the thankless job of feeding him and clothing him and keeping him in order and see if he can do it on the miserable bit he gave me when he’d taken out his beer-money. If I’d had more strength I’d still have been chastising the little brat.’

‘You’re well rid of him then. Get yourself a biscuit, Nora. They’re from the grocer. Ah, I don’t bother to bake now. It’s a long time since I’ve tasted a home-baked biscuit. You can make some for me now. You stay here, Nora, and don’t go back to that Doolan now or his bastard son. You don’t have to look after me for long. You can have that wedding-dress of mine now. It won’t be much use to you now. But it’ll be something to remember me by. It was my mother’s before me and I was a proud gel when I was married to Ned in it. And then it can go to Jack’s girl. Get me that pen and ink from the mantelpiece. There’s a writing-pad in the the drawer. I’ll write to Jack now and tell him. You’re to have the wedding-dress and half of the furniture and half the money in the bank. Ned won’t mind now. I’m doing what he would have done. Jack will be pleased. Yes, Jack will be pleased. Ah yes, I knew I’d never die till I’d made peace with my daughter.’

Nora got her the steel pen and small earthen bottle of ink, the writing-block with the edges of the sheets yellowed; she noticed that the stamps kept inside the writing-block carried portraits of George V.

‘I thought Jack might take me in, Mum,’ she said. ‘I didn’t think page 364 you’d have let me stay here. I rang him up and he’s coming up for me.’

‘Ah, you can stay here, Nora. It won’t be for long. Then you can go to Jack if you like and you can both sell up the house. Now you go back and get your things and don’t waste a word on that Doolan priest, and I’ll write to Jack.’ She settled laboriously to write the letter. When Nora had gone it occurred to her that since Jack was coming she need not write to him. But a dim suspicion that there might be some trap in Nora’s visit made her finish the letter and, when she had stamped the envelope, stumble with a stick up the path and along the main road to the post office. If the letter was posted, there would be no doubt that Jack would get it. It took her fifteen minutes to get to the post office. There was a strange red glow to the north of the township; it might have been lights from the dredge, since she didn’t know where the dredge was now, or it might have been a bush fire.

Nora, twenty minutes ahead of her, saw what it was as she came to the steep little track down the terrace on which the town stood and saw her own house blazing.