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



Rogers spent much of his time, when he wasn’t charting to his ward-mates, looking through the windows of the veranda at a view that was full of memories of his boyhood. South past the abattoirs was the corrugated-iron structure of the stone-crusher on the beach. From the abattoirs came the lowing of doomed cattle, the bleating of sheep and the squeals of pigs coming to the electric charge. Across from the yard of the abattoirs was a small green airfield built on a filled-in lagoon—one of the two lagoons fed by a creek that was lazy when it wasn’t in flood and lying behind a spit of sand running to the mouth of the Grey River; when he was a boy the hospital sewers drained into the lagoon, they weren’t allowed to play there, and its shores at low tide were slimy and littered with rusty tins and scraps of paper; people dumped rubbish on it and drowned cats in sugar-bags, with butter on their feet. There had been lupins and gorse all round; as boys they had known all the tracks through them and played hide-and-seek; lovers used to go there at night. As boys they helped the man over the road who came down every evening for a week piling the back of his truck with lupins to manure his garden. Now the airfield was green, small and tidy, and the lupins grew only along the beach, behind the ridge of stones washed up by the Tasman strewn with flood-carried trees and driftwood. Straight opposite was the thing they had called the h, the remains of the frame of the rudder of an old wreck, a cargo ship called the Lauder- page 393 dale that had run on the bar at the mouth of the Grey years ago; the h had been covered with sharp-edged black mussels and sea-moss; they used to scrabble in the sand, between waves, for pipis, and once a sea-insect like a long centipede had wriggled out and sent them scuttling. You used to be able to see the rusty boilers where the ship had tried to beach and been finally wrecked. Now the h was almost buried in sand, and only the perpendicular part of the structure showed like a post in the sea. Behind the airfield was Preston Road, two or three rows of bungalows on the spit of sand leading to Blaketown at the mouth of the river and the long ‘tip’, one of the two breakwaters made of rock blasted from the Cobden quarry, built to prevent the river dumping its silt and forming a bar too near its mouth. Often he could watch the dark angry Tasman sending in endless spuming white horses under a strong wind and grey ragged showery clouds blowing in from the west, from somewhere south of Australia.

This day was clear. There was frost on the grass in the morning, and a ‘barber’—the keen wind and night mist blowing down from the Grey Valley—was pushing across Blaketown and Cobden and disappearing over the sea. There was a general easterly breeze; outside it would be cold but bracing and Rogers was impatient to be able to walk along the beach in the spray of the sea that was always pounding rhythmically at the back of the thoughts of everyone in the hospital, to fondle the buds of gorse and lupins just yellowing, a week or two off blazing open, to feel the sharp prick of new gorse.

Idly he watched a small two-winged Tiger Moth fly in and land on the airfield. Two men and a boy got out, the collars of their jackets up. They began to dance on the spot and slap their arms around their shoulders as if they were cold. Then an indefinable movement of the boy made him sit up in his bed. That was Peter Herlihy, and the men—one was a stranger, the other looked like Arty Nicholson. Rogers watched with excitement. They were talking, now they were arguing. Arty said something to Peter, as if challenging him to a race, and they ran to the hangar, the other man following. The plane taxied and took off again, heading south. A few minutes later a taxi drove along the beach road, a policeman in the front seat with the driver; the two men and Peter got in the back.

As the taxi returned, passing below within a hundred and fifty yards of Rogers, he saw Peter’s face, well-cared for, but with a troubled expression on it. He stared out of the window and worried impotently.

Peter looking out of the car saw Rogers’s face at the hospital window, stared intently, then looked away blushing. He wanted to page 394 tell Arty who he had seen but he no longer felt so easy with him. He didn’t believe Arty when he said everything would be all right. Peter sat still in the back seat waiting for the inevitable betrayal.

The taxi stopped outside the police station, an old wooden building with almost all the paint flaked off: a new station was on the draught-board. At the back was a small wooden gaol with a barred window. The two policemen got out; the sergeant told Arty to stay there with Peter, then the local man came back.

‘You’re getting a free ride,’ he said to Arty. ‘We’re going to Nelson Creek.’

‘What are we going there for?’ Peter asked.

The policeman addressed his reply to Arty: ‘His old man lives there now. In one of those mill huts.’

‘I’m not going back!’ Peter said sullenly. ‘My old woman’ll half-kill me.’

‘Your mother doesn’t live there any more,’ the policeman said harshly. ‘Most boys’d be glad to get home to Mum.’

Peter’s eyes brightened. ‘Where is she? Has she gone away?’

‘She’s cleared out and left you, if you want to know. An’ I don’t blame her either if that’s all the respect she gets from you.’

‘Who’s there then?’

‘Your old man, that’s all.’

‘I’m not going to that convent.’

The policeman shrugged.

The taxi drove up the Grey Valley. They picked up Constable Rae at Ngahere, and then turned up a siding that led up, through bush and paddocks full of bracken and blackberry and blackened stumps in swampy ground, towards low hills covered with tall timber. They came to the straggling saw-milling settlement and stopped two or three times asking where Mike Herlihy lived. There were only a few women about; and every time they asked one of them, she would give long-winded directions, then stare at Peter and the others in the car and call to the nearest neighbour that the boy of Herlihy had been found.

The hut was very like the one they had left at the mouth of the Maori; iron-roofed, with one room, a corrugated-iron chimney at one end. Some slabs had been nailed on struts over the doorway to make a porch and bits of slab, from which the bark had been removed, had been sawn and split to make a trellis on either side, and a briar rose had been trained against one of them. The small plot by the front wall was full of weeds, but some nasturtiums and sweet- peas were beginning to show above them. The door was locked and there was no answer to their knock. After a few minutes Mike page 395 came in a navy working singlet, dungarees and braces and his usual battered hat; curly silvery hairs showed over his singlet and on his upper arms. Someone had sent word to the mill.

‘Oh, you’re back, are you?’ he grunted to Peter. ‘Where the hell ‘a’ ya been?’

Peter hung his head sulkily. Mike didn’t like to have his authority made a fool of in front of these strangers. ‘Come on, now, answer me!’ he said and clouted him lightly on the head. Peter ran to Arty and hid by his side.

‘Who’s this you’re knocking round with now?’ Mike said. ‘Bloody young Nicholson. He won’t do you any damn good. Now tell me, what did you run away for?’

‘You know why,’ Peter said.

‘Why did you burn the bloody place down?’

‘Mum gave me a hiding. You never stopped her.’

‘Well, you deserved a bloody hiding that night, after all that fuss and shenanikins over that schoolteacher. You’re not the only kid that gets a hiding. Other kids don’t burn the house down. Where ‘a’ ya been all this time?’

‘Down South Westland with this young fullah and his mate,’ the constable said.

‘We went down whitebaiting,’ Arty said.

‘What do you mean taking my kid away like that?’ Mike asked. ‘I’ve a good mind to put you up for it.’

‘We weren’t gonna come all the way back just for him,’ Arty said. ‘We didn’t find him till we got there.’ Peter listening felt that Arty had deserted him already.

‘Oh, you hid away in their car, did you?’ Mike said, and then to Arty, ‘You could ‘a’ let someone know.’

‘He was happy with us,’ Arty said. ‘We didn’t know he was being looked for. If you’d looked after him properly in the first place he wouldn’t ha’ run away from home.’

‘You keep your sticky bloody beak in your own affairs,’ Mike said. ‘Well, what are you all waiting round here for? He’s home, isn’t he? You’ve delivered him safe and sound. Do you want me to sign for him, or what?’

‘You’ll have to be with him at the Court House tomorrow morning at half-past ten,’ the constable said. ‘Don’t forget. You’ll be responsible that he doesn’t get away. He’s lucky we didn’t take him into custody.’

Mike nodded reluctantly. Constable Rae said, ‘Come on, driver, you can take us back to the Flat.’

‘There’ll be a pretty stiff bill for this outing,’ the driver said.

page 396

‘Ah, well, it’s Government money,’ the constable said.

‘See what you’ve cost the country, son,’ the driver said. ‘I don’t know why the local station doesn’t get a couple of cars of their own. All the cities have got them. Now, what if you had a troublesome customer, made a mess of my car? You’d have to pay damages.’

‘Don’t go, Arty!’ Peter said, dragging at Arty getting into the back seat. ‘You said you wouldn’t let them take me back. They’ll send me to the convent.’

‘I’ve got to,’ Arty said, ‘I’m not your father, Peter; I can’t take you from him.’

‘Let me come with you. I don’t want to stay here,’ Peter said.

‘Your mother’s not here to growl at you.’ Mike said, ‘Don’t be so bloody soft.’

‘I don’t want you either. You didn’t stop her hitting me.’ Arty got into the car and slammed the door.

‘I knew you’d be like all the men,’ Peter called at him. ‘They all let you down. Mr Rogers didn’t stick up for me, Dad let Mum give me a hiding, you’re just as bad. You’re all bloody frauds!’ he shouted, with tears streaming, at Arty who stared back, almost pleading with Peter to stop, angry and embarrassed.

‘You wonder what kids are coming to nowadays,’ the driver said glibly.

Mike went inside sulkily and sulkily Peter followed him. The hut was tidier than the one at the Maori yet Peter refused to accept it. Mike put some logs on the fire and removed some woollen underwear hung to dry in front of it. He peeled some potatoes and chipped them. ‘Sausages and chips,’ he said. ‘You like them, don’t you? You can cook them, can’t you?’ But Peter did not budge from the corner by the fire where he brooded. ‘You don’t seem to think I might ha’ been worrying about you all this time,’ Mike said. ‘You don’t care much about your father’s feelings.’

‘You went off and got drunk,’ Peter said. ‘You didn’t stop Mum laying into me.’

‘And you burnt the bloody house down,’ Mike said angrily. ‘You can’t put that back now. Houses don’t grow on bloody trees, you know. They cost money. I haven’t got the money to build another. I won’t get much out of the insurance.’

‘You spend it on beer,’ Peter said.

‘It’s not your place to start lecturing me,’ Mike said. ‘At least I don’t burn houses down. You ought to be thankful I’m not giving you a hiding for that.’

‘You gave me one anyway. That day I said it wasn’t true about Mr Rogers.’

page 397

Mike snarled.

‘I’m not going back to the convent,’ Peter said.

‘We’ll see about that,’ Mike said. ‘It’ll all be settled in court tomorrow.’

Over their meal he tried to make contact with this son who had got lost to him over the years. ‘I’m not going to live like this all the time. Oh, no. Living off the frying-pan isn’t good for the guts. I’m going fishing tomorrow. I’ve got some gelly there.’ He looked at Peter and thought he had better hide the gelignite out of his reach. ‘It the court’ll let you stay here, you can come fishing with me. This’ll be a man’s household. No nagging women around. Nora’s cleared off to her brother and you’ll never see her again.’ But Peter sulked till he went to bed.

In the morning Mike dressed up again in his blue serge suit, a clean shirt studded at the neck without a collar and polished his new boots. ‘I bought you a clean jersey,’ he said. ‘Your pants are a bit worn. They’ll have to do. And your sandals are nearly worn out.’ Peter kept wriggling where the coarse wool of the new jersey irritated his neck. They got a lift on a timber lorry to Ngahere and caught the bus from Coal Flat into town.

The Children’s Court met in a small room off the Magistrate’s Court. There were no reporters, and there were only Peter and Mike, the magistrate, and a woman from the Child Welfare Branch of the Education Department. The magistrate was in his fifties, grey-headed, with spectacles. In court he dealt with cases according to the strict letter of the law, never allowing himself any comment outside his interpretation of the law; he believed in moderate sentences for a first offence, and maximum sentences for second or later offences. Privately he deplored the light sentences passed by the judge at the last sessions of the Supreme Court, since he believed that the only deterrent was severity. When he dealt with juvenile cases, however, he tried to relax and frequently found himself unable to cope with the complexity of children’s delinquencies until he had reinterpreted them into terms of responsibility and appropriate measures to prevent any recurrence of the offence. In this court guilt and punishment did not concern him; but neither was he concerned with the happiness of the child, only that he should be prevented from offending again. He could not see why the Child Welfare Act allowed him such wide discretionary powers; he would have been quite satisfied, when he doubted if a boy’s parents were capable of adequately supervising him, to commit him to a boys’ home for several years. In this way the State would relieve the parents of their responsibilities; far from being punish- page 398 ment, it was an intercession; parents and offenders should be grateful. What became of the child, except that he should be turned out a law-abiding citizen, was not his concern.

The woman who sat beside him across the table was a spinster of forty-five, an austere-faced woman, who wore a plain felt hat and a tightly fitting costume of austere, masculine tailoring; in another society she might have found her work as a policewoman, or an officer in a women’s military unit. Her bearing was that of one dedicated to inspection. When she visited the homes on her list, she made a conscientious tour of the house, looked under the bed for fluff, unobtrusively ran her fingers on furniture for dust, noted unwashed dishes, peeped into the lavatory, and later checked up with teachers on the children’s attendance. The mothers on her list disliked her visits, they fumed or quailed at her discreet questions, but they had to humour her for fear that she might recommend that the children should be taken away from them. Actually, though she consciously hinted at this threat, she seldom used it, because she liked to increase her empire. She liked her work; her main regret was that when she was younger, she hadn’t passed her nursing exams; she might have been a matron in a hospital now, and it would have satisfied her more to have adults in her charge. She wasn’t an obviously bossy type of woman. She certainly was scornful of the ‘goosey’ members of her profession as she called them, those other child welfare officers, who were too tactful, too sympathetic; after all, they had a responsibility to the children to keep the parents up to the mark, and a responsibility to keep the children up to the mark too. But she exercised tact and discretion, she was always deliberately patient, and she brought a professional, if superior, smile to her visits. She seldom spoke about her work but she gave her friends the impression that if she were to talk, what tales she could tell about the way the other half lived.

Though the magistrate set out to make the court as informal as he could, Peter sat staring distrustfully across the table. The woman especially he distrusted; he had already dismissed the magistrate as comparatively harmless, Mike sat uneasily, not knowing whether he could put his elbows on the table or lean back with his hands in his pockets. The magistrate began by reading through some papers. Finally he took off his pince-nez and replaced his spectacles. He pursed his lips and leaned across the table.

‘Your name is Peter Herlihy?’


The woman glanced as if to reprove him for lack of manners, but it wasn’t her place to intervene unless called on.

page 399

‘I’ve been hearing some terrible things about you. Is it true that you set fire to your parents’ house at Coal Flat?’ Peter didn’t answer. ‘Answer me, now. You won’t get anywhere by being sulky. We’re here to help you, you know. Is it true?’


‘That’s a terrible thing to admit. Why did you do it?’


‘You’ll have to give me a better reason than that. What happened before you set fire to the house.’

‘Mum gave me a hiding.’

‘Is that why you burnt the house?’

Peter nodded.

‘Well, we’ve at least established the motive,’ the magistrate said aside to the child welfare officer. ‘Why did your mother give you the hiding?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Perhaps I can tell you,’ Mike said, sitting upright. ‘The wife was annoyed with him because of a case we’d brought against the boy’s teacher and the boy said in court it wasn’t true. The wife was annoyed because he’d made us look fools.’

‘Was it true, what they said about your teacher?’ the magistrate asked Peter.


‘Then why did you make those things up?’

‘I on’y made some of it up. Dad told the cop. I didn’t tell him. I told Dad it wasn’t true an’ he gave me a hiding.’

‘We weren’t sure,’ Mike said. ‘We thought it best to get the whole thing brought out in court.’

‘Quite properly, too,’ the magistrate said. ‘I read the proceedings of that court…. However, that doesn’t concern us. You say your mother gave you a hiding? Did she often do that?’


‘Well, other boys are punished by their parents. Why did you take it so hardly?’

‘He wouldn’t stop her,’ Peter said, looking at his father. ‘He didn’t care. He went out an’ got drunk.’

‘I’d had a worrying day,’ Mike said. ‘The wife was nagging. I went out for some fresh air.’

‘You drink a lot?’

‘Well, I like my pint, that’s as far as it goes.’

‘How much would you say you consumed in an evening?’

‘Well,’ Mike said slyly, ‘the pubs are closed in the evenings.’

page 400

‘Come, come,’ the magistrate said. ‘This isn’t going to go any further.’

‘Well, it depends. About half a dozen pints, on an average. Sometimes less.’

‘I see. Would you say it was too much?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Can you afford it?’

‘Well, I’ve managed up to now, sir. The wife used to complain about it, like.’

‘Your wife is no longer living with you?’

‘No, sir.’

‘You and she didn’t get along very well?’

‘No, sir.’

‘What about you? Did you like your mother?’

‘No,’ Peter said.


Peter didn’t answer.

‘She was always growling at him,’ Mike said.

‘Do you want to live with your mother?’

‘No,’ Peter said.

‘When you ran away from home, who were you running away from?’

‘I thought I’d get into trouble.’

‘Naturally enough. Would you like to live with your father?’

Peter stared in sulky indecision. The longer he delayed his reply the more miserable Mike felt. Then Peter said, ‘I want to live with Arty and Joe.’

‘Who are Arty and Joe?’

‘There was two young fullahs going whitebaiting down near the Haast,’ Mike said. ‘The boy hid in their car and they looked after him.’

‘Come, come,’ the magistrate said. ‘You can’t live with two young men. I presume they’ll be getting married sooner or later and they wouldn’t want a boy of your age around. You know that there’s a recommendation from a Judge of the Supreme Court that you should go to a convent. I don’t yet see any reason to override that. I was thinking of holidays. Who would you like to look after you in the holidays?’

Peter didn’t answer.

‘Do you think your wife will come back?’

‘No,’ Mike said. ‘We didn’t hit it off together.’

‘Do you think she contemplates divorce action? Do you contemplate such action?’

page 401

‘I’m a Catholic, sir.’

Peter said, ‘I’m not going to that convent.’

The child welfare officer looked at him as if to say, just give her a free hand and she would deal with this boy.

‘I repeat that you won’t get far by being nasty,’ the magistrate said. ‘Have you been to this convent before?’


‘He was there last year,’ his father said.

‘Why didn’t you like it?’

‘The nuns used to hit me and lock me up. They’re mad nuns.’

‘Well, it strikes me that you could do with some judicious punishment, my boy, and being locked up in a room never hurt anyone. I’m sure the nuns didn’t administer punishment without good reason. Nobody does. I hope you’ll come to understand that. We adults are here to help you, and if we punish a boy it’s to make you a better man. Do you understand?’

If Peter did, he didn’t show it.

The magistrate turned from them to the child welfare officer. ‘Miss Cole,’ he said in a low voice. ‘There are really only two alternatives, as I see it. Either the convent, or send him home to his father under your supervision. Could you undertake to do that?’

‘I’m quite sure I could manage him,’ she said.

‘Well,’ the magistrate said turning to Mike. ‘Could you manage to look after him?’

‘I could try,’ Mike said. ‘As long as he doesn’t burn the place down on me again.’

‘You would have to keep matches away from him. Would you undertake not to get up to any nonsense like that again? If I let you go home to your father, will you promise me not to burn the house?’

Peter looked at him with scorn.

‘I keep gelignite there,’ Mike said inadvertently. ‘For blasting stumps,’ he added hastily.

‘You mustn’t keep any there then. Miss Cole will keep a lookout for that.’

Mike leaned forward. ‘That doesn’t mean I’m on your inspection list?’ he asked.

‘The boy will be under Miss Cole’s supervision. She will have to report periodically. If the Child Welfare Branch is not satisfied that you are providing him with adequate care and protection, it will have the power to recommend his removal to an institution and a court may direct that this should be done.’

‘I’m not having any women coming poking their noses into my hut,’ Mike said. ‘I had one nagging over me long enough. At least page 402 she did my cooking and cleaning. I’m not having any outsider coming in to criticize how I keep house.’

‘I was under the impression that you wanted the boy home,’ the magistrate said. ‘In that case, I have no alternative but to give effect to His Honour’s recommendation that the boy should go to the convent.’ He rose and bent patronizingly over Peter. ‘You may not like it now, my boy. But when you’re a man you’ll thank me for this.’

‘I’m not going there,’ Peter said. ‘I’m not!’

When his father tried to lead him out he kicked and struggled so much that they had to call a policeman who locked him in a room till he cooled off; and when his father finally persuaded him to come back with him, he did not speak to him all the way home.