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

1

1

Well! What’s wrong with us?’ Jessie asked.

Rogers leaned over the kitchen table watching her cut Jimmy’s crib for the next day. The rain was drumming on the iron roof.

‘I’ve got nothing against you, Jessie,’ he said. ‘I’ve got reason to be thankful to you. People at the Flat have been good to me.’

‘Well, why run away from it?’

‘Oh, it’s not that, Jessie. It’s—well, I can’t explain very well. I want to get away from all the memories of things.’

‘Well, I know you had a sticky time in the end. But your friends are still with you, Paul. And everybody in the Flat knows exactly what did happen. If you go away you might have rumours following you around, and people that don’t know any different might believe them.’

‘It’s the job,’ Jimmy said. ‘You can’t expect him to want to be a miner.’

‘Flora wanted me to stay. But I wouldn’t have liked it.’

‘Oh no, that wouldn’t have been any solution,’ the doctor said. ‘What would be the sense of throwing away all your training? You can use yourself far more effectively in a profession. You can identify yourself with the workers’ cause without having to be a worker yourself. That would have been sectarianism. Left-sectarianism.’

‘Talk English, Doctor,’ Rogers said. ‘Coal Flat people don’t understand terms like that. Anyway, you’re barking up the wrong tree. I’ve got to change direction. There’s something wrong with the way I’ve been going in the past and I feel let down by it. I’m going to keep my distance and take my bearings before I commit myself now.’

‘There’s no need to do that. There’s nothing that’s happened to you that can’t be explained in good Marxist terms. You’re taking things too subjectively. The sooner you start work again the better.’

page 416

‘Well, I won’t be working here.’

‘If you get into adult education you might get back over here as a tutor-organizer. You could conduct lessons for the people here.’

‘That doesn’t attract me.’

‘Why not? You’re locked out of school education now. But by fighting for progressive ideas in general you could influence education in particular, from the outside, through the parents.’

‘Now, Doctor, we talked about this months ago. I was opposed to it then, only I didn’t give honest reasons, because I didn’t know why I was against it. But now I do. The climate’s not favourable. No one wants to learn anything. Everyone’s too comfortable having a sleep, even the miners. You wouldn’t even get the horse to water, let alone make him drink. And people don’t learn that way. They learn best from their own experience and what the miners learn will be from their collective experience, from disputes and action and settlements of disputes, not from classes in history and politics and literature.’

‘But as you said yourself then, that’s only half of life. They could learn from what they do themselves…. You remember you suggested a community centre. There’s the nucleus of it already in this new working-men’s club they’re starting in the old billiard-room. With a bright man running it, it could be a livelier scheme than I thought at the time. I think McKenzie was wrong about that. The people themselves could work something out.’

‘McKenzie didn’t have a clue. But we’re back where we were. What’s the use in stimulating activity when no one feels the need for it? All they feel the need of in the new club is beer and billiards and forty-fives…. Drama groups, reading and discussion groups in Coal Flat! It would be as phoney as glee clubs or marching girls.’

‘Don’t you even believe in the value of adult education?’

‘Where the need is felt. Where people want it. But they don’t want it here.’

‘You’re despairing too much.’

‘Well, someone else might be able to work it here. Not me.’

‘Well, you men can argue,’ Jessie said. ‘But I’m going in next door to mind the kids. They’re going to the pictures.’

‘What’s on?’ Jimmy asked.

‘Oh, some crime film. Where’s my coat? Who’d live in this climate?’ Jessie went out and left them.

‘I suppose the hall will be full,’ Rogers said. ‘Union meetings in the day, crime films at night. It’s like those comics Sid Raynes was selling.’

‘Well, you did something about that,’ the doctor said. ‘You could page 417 still do something about this. Anyway, I’ll have to go myself. All the best, and look us up if you get back here.’ They shook hands, and Rogers looked across the table at Jimmy.

‘Flora’s helping them pack,’ he said.

‘You’re pretty sour about things tonight,’ Jimmy said. ‘You shouldn’t take it out on us.’

Rogers looked at him with bitterness. ‘You let me down,’ he said. He looked down at the table: he didn’t like being bitter with anyone.

‘How did we let you down? We even tried to get your job back for you.’

‘You didn’t support me. Not about Peter. You wouldn’t have supported me if you’d known what I was doing. I had to do it all behind your backs.’

‘Well, I’m not sure that we agree with what you were doing with that boy. We know you meant well. But you took a risk, and it didn’t work.’

‘It would have worked if I’d had society behind me. One man can’t do everything by himself.’

‘No one expects you to. And if you’re blaming society, society’s a lot bigger than the Miners’ Union. There were the boy’s parents and that home he came from and the priest and the headmaster and the policeman and the judge and the magistrate and child welfare; they all had a hand in it. We even tried to get the boy adopted out. The union’s never done that before.’

‘It’s a pity it hadn’t. That’s what I’m getting at. This community would let that boy live under its nose unhappy and getting worse and go about its business like the Levite and not do anything till the boy broke the law. Then you hand him over to the State and now you’re telling me the State’s to blame. If it’s the State’s fault, it’s your fault even more.’

‘We did try to do something for the boy.’

‘Only because I did something first. If it hadn’t been for me Peter would have still been down there in that house…’

‘And Mike would have had his house still. And the boy isn’t much better off for your interference where he’s ended up, being reared in all that superstition…. I tell you, you took too much on. It was more than any one man could handle.’

‘I know I took too much on. Perhaps it wouldn’t have worked even if you’d all known what I was doing, even if you’d been helping the boy too. But I can’t stay here. I’m out of place. The town isn’t with me. That’s what I mean when I say I feel you let me down.’

page 418

‘Well, if it comes to that, you let us down. You didn’t stick by us when we tried to get something done.’

‘I couldn’t see it then.’

‘Well, we couldn’t see with you about the boy. We still don’t. If you want us to see it, you’ve got to explain these things. You’ve got to educate us up to it.’

Rogers pondered for a while. ‘But not here,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to start in another place. In a city….’ He looked up at Jimmy with wry self-disparagement. ‘I’ll be a safe conforming suburban back-gardener,’ he said. ‘Boasting of beancrops over the back fence. No Jimmy, I’m keeping out of union matters and politics now. I’ll steer clear of ideas except as I need them for my job. I’ll just be another suburban New Zealander, from Upper Riccarton or Shirley or further out on the outskirts, and I’ll go for the job and the wife and family and the house and garden. That’s my career—the job and the home. I’ve been pushed into it.’

‘Well, you’ve got to look after Flora. But that’s not everything. That’s the way you’re talking now,’ Jimmy said. ‘But in a few months you’ll be all right again. And there’s plenty of room for progressive ideas in any job, especially the kind that you’re likely to go for. Only don’t go getting yourself into trouble again.’