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 watched the last embers of the house in which she had lived sixteen painful years. That period was ended and her only regret was that she hadn’t been able to collect her belongings first. She was furious, nevertheless, that Peter had got his own back on her; furious at her impotence. There was a crowd of people watching. They were still heaving buckets of water on the glowing pieces of wood and twisted roofing iron, the broken glass, the collapsed iron beds, the cracked iron bath-tub. There was no fire brigade in Coal Flat and no water supply except from the water races. Any building that caught fire was doomed, and the townsfolk turned out with buckets to prevent other buildings catching. But Nora and Mike had no neighbours; there was only the scrub around them. And since they lived away from the town, it was harder to get many buckets down there in time. There was no sign of Mike. He couldn’t have been in Palmers’ bar because people said that old Don hadn’t opened up the bar tonight. Someone said Mike had been seen walking towards Ngahere. She supposed he was drinking there. But she didn’t care where he was.

Constable Rae came to her. ‘You think it was the boy, Mrs Herlihy?’

‘I’m bloody sure of it, constable. I warn you if I see him I’ll damn near kill him.’

‘He’ll have to be charged, Mrs Herlihy. He’ll go before the Children’s Court. People won’t stand it, having a young incendiarist at large.’

‘You can do what you bloody well like with him, Mr Rae. I don’t care if I never see him again.’

Jessie and Jimmy Cairns came deferentially to her. ‘You can stay with us, Mrs Herlihy, till Mike fixes up a new place for you,’ Jessie page 370 said. ‘We’ll be a bit crowded. But if you don’t mind that, we’d be glad to have you.’

Nora was deeply touched at this act of kindness, but beyond a small firm smile, she was too proud to acknowledge it. ‘Jack’s coming for me,’ she said, ‘and I’m going to Mum’s.’ She was glad of this opportunity to show her independence of the town; and it gratified her that Jessie and Jimmy raised their eyebrows when she mentioned her mother. ‘Well, if you need anything, let us know,’ Jessie said, and for the first time in many years Nora said, ‘Thanks’.

Jack arrived in a few minutes in a small Ford truck.

‘Why didn’t you get in touch with me before, if it was like this?’ he said. ‘I never knew.’

‘Oh, Jack,’ Nora said, breaking again into tears, ‘I wish you’d stopped me going after him. You were the only one that could have done it. Mum and Dad always made me stubborn.’

‘Come back now then,’ Jack said, ‘The wife’ll give you some things to go on with till you buy some new ones.’ Jimmy Cairns sauntered curiously to the truck and called tentatively, ‘Hullo, Jack!’ But Jack didn’t even look, let alone answer.

Nora watched Flora Palmer, dishevelled, run to the doctor who had come to see if there were any casualties.

‘I’m staying at Mum’s,’ Nora said. ‘I’ve been to make it up with her. She’s writing to you about it.’

Jack nodded his approval. ‘I’ll take you there,’ he said.