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



Joe was never at any of the meetings of the nameless committee, if meetings they could be called. Arty and his parents would mull the matter over at the meal table, Ben would pass the word on to Jimmy at work if they had come to any suggestion and when he got home Jimmy would ask Jessie about it. Joe sent Arty a cheque for £70, his share in the payment for the whitebait; they had agreed to divide the money in three, a third to go to Peter. Joe opened up a post office savings account for him, but under his own name.

The ‘committee’ agreed that, though Jessie was prepared on thinking it over to take Peter in, Ben’s was the best place for him, since he would see a lot of Arty. Arty had suggested that in six months’ time when he and Winnie were married, they could take him, but the older ones shook their heads. ‘You don’t want a boy as old as that when you’re just starting out,’ Jessie said.

‘What does he know about bringing up kids?’ Arty’s mother wanted to know.

‘Or Winnie either,’ Jessie said.

So Ben went over to Nelson Creek on the Saturday and knocked up Mike. Mike did not look at him. He stared sourly into the fire and occasionally spat, so that big gobs of phlegm dangled like yo-yos from the grate, hissing and hardening, leaving silvery deposits. ‘You haven’t got a bloody chance,’ Mike said contemptuously when Ben page 411 had put the case. ‘Do you think I’m flattered at your interest? You’re telling me I’m not a fit parent, is that it?’

‘We could provide him with a home, that’s something you won’t do, and the convent can’t do because it’s an institution.’

‘Why are you so interested in the boy all of a sudden? You didn’t take any notice of him before.’

‘He had a home then. We thought he was all right.’

Mike pondered without letting Ben see that he might be considering the offer. Then he spat again and said, ‘It was you bloody socialists that started all this trouble anyway. Coming along offering to help after you’ve ruined me….’

‘We didn’t burn your house down,’ Ben said.

‘If it hadn’t been for the strike I might have thought twice… about prosecuting young Rogers when the boy said it wasn’t true. You drove me to it.’

‘You can’t blame us for that.’

‘Then Nora wouldn’t have licked him. And we’d still have a house. And now yer-all come begging forgiveness, saying you’re sorry. “Here’s fifty quid to smooth it over.” I wouldn’t take their bloody fifty quid. They can keep their charity. That’s one thing I picked up from Nora—pride.’ He mumbled, ‘Pride’.

‘I’ve not come to talk about that,’ Ben said. ‘I’ve come to ask if you’ll sign adoption papers for the boy.’

‘That boy will get a good Catholic upbringing at the convent,’ Mike said. ‘I don’t want him brought up a heathen. There’s enough of your type in the world already.’

‘You won’t sign then?’

‘Give me the paper,’ Mike said with a sly grin around the tip of his pipe; Ben passed it to him readily but not without mistrust, and Mike snatched it and threw it in the fire. He chuckled as if to bolster his self-esteem. ‘Ha! You didn’t expect that, did you, Nicholson? I’m a bit too smart for you yet!’

Ben shrugged. ‘I’ll be back again,’ he said.

‘Bring a few more of those papers,’ Mike said. ‘I’ll want them for lighting the fire.’

Ben saw Nora at her mother’s. Mrs Seldom answered the door. She did not speak; she closed the door. But a minute later Nora appeared and they negotiated on the back doorstep. Nora glared at him, waiting for his reason.

‘It’s about your boy, Mrs Herlihy,’ Ben began.

‘I’m Nora Seldom now. Unless I ever get any maintenance money.’

‘Maggie and I want to adopt him.’

page 412

Nora leaned against the doorpost and laughed for the first time since before she was married, a shrill mirthless laugh. She stood nodding her head over him with a grim set to her lips. ‘Well, by Christ, Ben Nicholson, if that isn’t the best I’ve heard! You’re as good as a bloody treat. What’s wrong with Maggie McKenzie? I thought she found it hard enough to do any work at all, let alone take any more on. Mum! Here’s a good ’un! Listen to this! Ben and Maggie want to adopt the brat!’

Mrs Seldom called her in, but Nora went out again with mock determination on her face. ‘No bloody fear,’ she said. ‘I don’t give two damns what’s behind it. You don’t get two chances like this in your lifetime. You can have the bugger for all I care,’ she said to Ben. ‘Where is he anyway?’

‘He’s in a convent. Would you sign here then?’

‘Have you seen Mike?’

‘He won’t sign.’

‘Give me the pen then. I can’t do it quick enough. I don’t care if he rots in a convent or who’s keeping him. If Mike dies I’ll have to keep him. I might be rid of him yet.’

But though Ben went twice again to Mike he wouldn’t sign. Ben didn’t risk passing him the paper with Nora’s signature on it. Mike was drunk but Mike seemed to be glad of his company, to have someone he could prove himself on in argument. Ben gave up calling on him. And Peter brooded in the convent.