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

Conditions of use


Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (digital text)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Coal Flat


page 360



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.


‘I’ll ask Frank,’ Doris said. ‘If he says it’s all right, then it’s all right by me.’

She and Flora faced Rogers across a kitchen table already laid. The potatoes and turnips were boiling, the mince simmering, and the custard pudding cooling. ‘He ought to be in any minute now,’ Doris said.

Frank pushed the door open roughly and took in the scene with a surly but not unfriendly look. He gave Doris a rough kiss and sat down to take off his working boots. ‘What, you not in goal yet?’ he said to Rogers.

‘The case was dismissed,’ Doris said. ‘Paul’s feeling a bit feather-headed now. Who wouldn’t be?’

‘Feather-headed!’ Rogers protested. ‘I’m worn out.’

‘Yeah, I heard at the mine,’ Frank said. ‘By God, it just shows you. Bloody lying little brat. It’s hard to credit that a kid could think up a story like that.’

‘His father had a hand in it,’ Rogers said, ‘I don’t believe Peter knew what it was all about.’

Frank went to the kitchen sink and washed himself noisily. He left them and came back in his socks wearing a clean singlet and a page 365 softer pair of trousers. Doris was straining the vegetables. ‘Put on a shirt,’ she said. ‘We’ve got company.’

Frank sneered. ‘Ar! This isn’t the Grand Hotel.’

‘You’ll get a cold, Frank,’ Doris said.

Frank got up unwillingly to get a shirt. ‘Anybody’d think they’d never seen a man’s chest before.’ He stood at the door and expanded his chest. He pulled up his singlet and tautened the hard shield of his stomach muscles. ‘How do you like that, Flor?’ he asked. ‘I bet Paul can’t do as good as that.’ Doris put down the saucepans and pushed him to the door. ‘Frank!’ she said petulantly slapping his buttocks, and he went out chuckling.

During the meal Doris said, ‘The boy’s got to go to a convent. The judge said.’

‘Best place for him,’ Frank said. ‘Keep him out of trouble.’

‘It made him worse last time,’ Rogers said.

‘Well, it’s not your worry,’ Frank said.

‘Paul reckons someone ought to adopt him,’ Doris said.

‘Who the hell’d want to adopt a kid like that?’ Frank said. ‘What the hell are you worrying about him for? He got you into trouble enough.’

‘Someone’s got to do something for him,’ Rogers said. ‘Everybody passes the buck to someone else. They dump him into a convent. He’ll end up a criminal if someone doesn’t try to help him.’

‘You can’t be worried about that.’

‘He’d be a handful but he’d get better if he was properly looked after.’

‘Paul wondered if we could,’ Doris said.

‘Us!’ Frank exploded. ‘Jesus Christ Almighty! What would we want to adopt him for? You don’t adopt kids as old as that. You want them as babies so you can train them young. Anyway the boy’s old man wouldn’t let us. You’ve got to have the parents’ permission. If the judge says he’s got to go to a convent he’s got to go. A court order’s a court order.’

‘It’ll be hard to get around that, Paul,’ Flora said.

‘Anyway, why pick on us?’ Frank said. ‘Look here, it might be known in the family that Doris and I can’t have any of our own, but we don’t want the whole bloody town to know it. You’ve got a bloody check!’ he said to Paul. ‘You don’t need to think we’re so hard up that we’ll snap at any waif and stray that’s offering, do you? We’ve got some bloody self-respect. If we ever do any adopting it won’t be for a while yet, and it’ll be a baby that doesn’t know its mother or its father, that we can bring up our own way; not a ready-made grown-up kid that knows we’re not its parents and’ll page 366 throw it up in our faces; not a bloody kid like young Herlihy that’ll invent lies about us and get us taken to court. There’d be nothing safe about the place if we had him here.’

‘Oh well, Paul was just wondering,’ Doris said.

You didn’t want to adopt him, did you?’ Frank said.

‘I said I’d see what you said,’ Doris said, with resignation.

‘I just thought I’d sound you on it,’ Rogers said. ‘There was no harm in trying.’

‘The matter’s closed,’ Frank said. ‘I’m not discussing it any more.’

‘There’s no one will lift a finger to help the boy,’ Rogers said.

‘Everybody says, “What a pity, look at the home he comes from.” But we just dump him into an institution. Nobody will do anything for him. Do you wonder that he’ll grow up to hate people?’

‘I told you before, it’s not your responsibility,’ Frank said.

‘There’s too many nosey-parkering people minding everyone else’s business in this world already.’ He refolded the Evening Star in front of him and started to read.

There was a small knock on the door. ‘Come in,’ Doris shouted eagerly, glad that the discussion was interrupted. Young Donnie came in shyly.

‘Come in, Donnie,’ Doris said, jumping up to kiss him. ‘Have you had your tea?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘Then have a cup of milk. Here.’

Flora kissed him too.

‘Auntie Flora, Gran says will you come home. She wants you to come and see her.’

‘You be careful, Flora,’ Frank said. ‘There’s a bloody trap at the end of it, I’ll bet.’

‘Oh, Frank,’ Doris said. ‘How do you know? You can’t blame Mum for wanting to see Flora. She’s been through a worrying time.’

‘If you’ve got any sense,’ Frank said to Rogers, ‘you’ll go with her.’

‘Oh, Frank,’ Doris said. ‘Flora’s got a mind of her own.’

‘Hullo!’ Frank said from his paper. ‘They’ve brought the beer down! I didn’t know that. It’s all over then. They’ve given in. I wonder if that’s why your Mum wants to see Flor.’

‘Then we can go and see them again!’ Doris said joyfully. ‘Gosh, that’s great.’

‘Don’t be in such a hurry,’ Frank said. ‘Wait for a day or two till things get back to normal…. I wonder how many of their old customers will go back there now.’

‘Dad’s trying to get a pub away from the Coast,’ Flora said. ‘They won’t be here long.’

page 367

‘They want you to go with them, that’s it,’ Frank said. ‘Paul, you keep your eye on her.’

‘Gran said to tell you she hasn’t been well,’ Donnie said.

‘Looking for sympathy,’ Frank said. ‘If she can’t boss you around she wants you to feel sorry for her. She’s got Don there to feel sorry for her.’

‘Oh, Frank,’ Doris said. ‘Not in front of the kid.’

‘How’s Daddie?’ Flora asked.

‘He’s all right,’ Donnie said; then more surely, ‘He doesn’t talk much. He’s been out all day.’

‘Is Granddad well?’

‘Yes. He went into town today. But Grannie’s not. She locked the front door, ‘cause there was only me and her at home.’

‘I’ll have to go and see her, Paul,’ Flora said. ‘It’s not fair. You come with me.’

‘I bet you won’t be back here to sleep tonight,’ Frank said. Flora didn’t comment.

The three of them crossed the bridge over the creek and climbed to the Roa road. They had passed the bins when the lights of a car shone behind them; they turned to see a Morris Eight slithering fast and unpredictably towards them. They ran to the bracken and blackberry at the side of the road. ‘It’s Daddie’s car!’ Donnie said. The car screeched suddenly to a stop. Don leaned out of the window, with a peculiar drunken leer on his face. ‘Going far?’ he said. ‘Climb in.’ Flora stared sullenly; she had not spoken to him since she walked out of the hotel.

‘You’re drunk, Don,’ Rogers said. ‘You’re not fit to drive.’

‘What of it?’ Don said. ‘You never been drunk before? It’s a good feeling. I’m high, Paul. Four hours’ solid drinking at Roa, not a sod to talk to. Do you know how much it cost me? Sixpence. Just think of that. The beer’s down to sixpence again, and I’ve been drinking it. I’ve been on the spirits too. Rum, whisky, advocaat, everything.’

‘Don, you should have been home with Mum,’ Flora said.

‘Mum’s old enough to take care of herself, isn’t she? She doesn’t want her little Donnie-boy to act the mother to her now, does she? I’m old enough to manage by myself, too, see? That’s what a lot of people don’t seem to understand!’

Donnie began to cry. ‘You go ahead with him, Flora,’ Rogers said. ‘He shouldn’t see his father like this. I’ll catch you up.’ Flora walked off quickly, clutching Donnie’s hand.

‘You know what I want now, Paul?’ Don said. ‘I want a nice woman, like Tess, like that one I had in Christchurch. Not a shrivelled-up old sour-apple like Miss Dane. One that’s slim and page 368 wriggles like a lizard underneath me. Or a soft fat widow to wrap herself around me. That’s what I want, and I’d be happy to conk out in the middle of it.’

‘Snap out of it, Don,’ Rogers said. ‘You’ve got yourself into a mess. You ought to go away again and set yourself on your own feet.’

‘It was all in the paper, wasn’t it?’ Don said. ‘About me and that sour-apple schoolteacher in the scrub. That’s friendship, Paul, getting yourself out of trouble by getting me into it.’

‘There’s no comparison. You wouldn’t have gone to gaol. You won’t lose your job.’

‘Now everyone’ll know after all, when she has that snork, that I’m the father.’

‘Miss Dane? Carrying a baby? … Well You could have married her.’

‘I wanted to, Paul, I was going to. But Mum put her foot on it.’

‘Where’s your manhood then? Surely you could have ignored her.’

‘I did in the end. It was too late then, Paul. The old girl had got religion or something. She was queer. She wouldn’t listen to me. She didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. Paul, I tried, do you understand me? I could have set myself up, and to hell with the old woman, and married the old girl but she didn’t want it. What could I do? I couldn’t force her to marry me. And I had a row with the old woman about it.’

‘You’re all in a mess, Don.’

‘She beggared my life,’ Don said. ‘Climb in.’ Rogers climbed into the back seat. ‘What’s that glow ahead?’ Rogers asked. ‘It looks like a fire.’

‘The hobs of hell,’ Don said, and suddenly accelerated. ‘You’re my friend, you were telling me once,’ he said wryly, ‘a friend’ll go anywhere for you. Why don’t you come along with me? I could use some company where I’m going.’

The car was heading diagonally across the road to Mrs Seldom’s house below. ‘You bloody fool,’ Rogers almost screamed and hurled himself through the door. He hit the road on a half-turn, left foot first and slewed painfully round falling on his hip.

He tried to get up but he was too dizzy. He had been sitting there a minute or two when Don lurched overhead. ‘You bloody fool,’ Don said, ‘Did you think I meant it? You should ha’ known me better than that…. Get up.’ He helped Rogers up.

‘I can’t stand on one leg. I’ve ricked my ankle. You’re too unsteady.’ He had to lower himself again. His shoulder was sore and his forehead was bleeding.

page 369

‘I’ll get the car if you’ll let me drive you again. I’ll take you to the doctor’s.’

Rogers let Don hoist him as well as he could into the car. ‘I’ll drop you at the quack’s, and then I’m going away, Paul, away. Tonight. Straight after this. I’m going to fill up along the road and drive all night.’

Against the pain, Rogers said: ‘Can’t you leave it till tomorrow, Don? Wait till you’re sober?’

Don didn’t answer. Across the silence came Mrs Palmer’s voice calling plaintively like a child for its mother, ‘Don-NEE! Don-NEE!’


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.