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



When Miss Dane applied for the position at Coal Flat she had no idea where it was: ‘Grade V. Roll 162’ was all the information the Education Gazette gave her. She hunted up an atlas printed in England, but Coal Flat wasn’t marked. Finally she went into the kitchen and looked at the A.M.P. calendar on the wall, and there it was, a little circle on the West Coast, eighteen miles from the circle marked Greymouth. She didn’t know what people did in this town, but she had vague ideas of a ‘wild and woolly West Coast’; she knew it rained hard there, that there was saw-milling, that there had been a violent history of gold-rushes and canvas-towns and, she seemed to have read somewhere, remnants of the Kelly gang and coach robberies in the nineteenth century. But she was pleased she did not know too much about it: the prospect of a leap in the dark was vaguely thrilling, it revived the expectations, since disappointed, she had felt when she was preparing as a girl to leave home for training college in Auckland. She needed a break; she was becoming quite a stick-in-the-mud, she thought. For three years she had been headmistress of this two-teacher school in Taranaki, with a class of stolid and healthy farmers’ children and a small proportion of Maoris, of whom she complained but who really made her school life more interesting, since every day brought a crop of episodes which, with the sense of humour for which she imagined herself commended among the local people, she could relate at the tea-table every night. The time Dickie wouldn’t eat the banana she gave him because he thought it was poisonous; Henare’s morning talk about the fight his parents had had the night before. They helped to fill a hunger in her life: other people were doing the things that fascinated her, yet she could still, as a member of the Women’s Institute and a regular attendant at the Presbyterian Church, look down on them. But she felt that the slow even rhythms of life on a Taranaki dairy farm were enticing her into a page 47 rut; another five years and she would be a confirmed old maid and a part of the local landscape as accepted and unnoticed as the cabbage-tree near the front gate of the farmhouse where she boarded. The O’Reillys were kind to her and she knew they liked her brand of humour, but she had boarded a lot of minor irritations for three years—the breakfast table set for her alone on Sunday mornings because they were going to mass; Mr O’Reilly’s Irish temper interrupted her idea of a world where people were always kind to one another, taking flowers to the sick, asking after one another’s health, giving birthday presents. She tried to fit in as one of the family—that was what the O’Reillys said when they took her in—and she tried to believe she was one of them, but her separation from them and her dependence on them were always being rubbed into her, unconsciously, by the O’Reillys themselves. The fact that they were married, that they had their own intimacies and secrets to which she was not a party (and if she had been, she would have been embarrassed); the younger sons coming home for holidays and treating her as a stranger; the lack of privacy, spending her evenings in the kitchen sewing or knitting or making number cards for her infants, watching them live their life without being able to share it, wanting at times to advise and help them, knowing her efforts would be resented. Continually she lived a public life; so much that, left to herself of a sudden, she was afraid and unfamiliar —though she had spent thirty-three years single—as if she had entered a quiet gully in the bush where there were only mossy rotten logs and supplejack and soft fronds of six-finger and no noise but the trickle of a clear stream not more than two inches deep and the occasional somehow ominous snapping of a fallen twig. Day after day there was her routine of school, and her relations, professional and on principle friendly, with Miss James the probationary assistant, whose unconsciously attractive features she envied and who boarded with the McPhersons, never on good terms with the O’Reillys—though Miss Dane was above being infected by this feud: Mr Mac gave out the hymn-books at her church; there was her homework, her bright conversation at the meal-table—regularly after each meal she wiped the dishes for Mrs O’Reilly who regularly protested (‘It won’t take a minute,’ Miss Dane would say); there was the institute, every Thursday at three —she closed the school early (taking ten minutes off the lunch-hour) so that she and Miss James, whom she had roped in, could attend on time; she was trying to form a local Red Cross group, though some of the farmers’ wives were against this new-fangled claim on their time already overloaded with chores in the house and page 48 on the farm and all the rural women’s extra jobs like making the children’s clothes and mowing the front lawn, chopping the firewood and keeping a vegetable garden—Miss Dane put this down to an old-fashioned conservatism and imagined herself a pioneer of progress in a wayback community; then on Sunday afternoons the parson from Eltham came out for a service—she preferred church in the morning and evening as in New Plymouth where she grew up, but it was one of the hardships of country life that she had to dress up and be active in the afternoon while Mrs O’Reilly caught up with her sewing and Mr had his snooze on the bunk on the front veranda. It was an even and reassuring pattern of life; she was part of a small scattered community of people she didn’t meet often except at church and the institute, yet who would recognize her as the schoolmistress wherever she went; she had her function and she performed it, and the parents were satisfied with her and the children if not overjoyed with school at least did not dislike it. But after three years of such a life she wanted a change. ‘The first infant mistress’s job that’s going,’ and on the eighth of every month when the Gazette arrived she studied it, feeling guilty because the school got only one copy and Miss James should have been applying for a job for the next year too. She put in for two districts that appealed to her and missed. When the Coal Flat position was advertised for a second time she applied immediately; it was only after she had posted her application that she looked to see where it was. She didn’t say anything about it to the O’Reillys because she didn’t want people to be greeting her with, ‘I hear you’re leaving us soon,’ at least not until she was sure she had been accepted for the position: if it was known that she was trying to leave but couldn’t find another job, people would automatically think she couldn’t be a good teacher. Since the job had been advertised previously, she was reasonably sure of getting it and she was eager to know more of Coal Flat, but she made no inquiries, apart from locating the circle on the map, preferring to feel that she was heading for strange country with the ghost of the spirit of the pioneers, to a new life with unguessed prospects, perhaps even the chance of ending her spinsterhood. Then—though she wouldn’t allow herself any conceit as she called it, any complacency about her popularity—there was the inevitable ritual of parting: the presents from the children, the farewell at the institute, the church, the school. It would all add up to one of those solid and memorable emotional crests in which her life had been lacking.

And it did. The letter from the Canterbury Education Board came; she guessed success before she opened it, she dropped her page 49 chalk and told the children to read quietly for a minute, and she skipped, deliberately skipped, into Miss James’s room and showed her the letter. Miss James made a gasp of pleasure and congratulated her, and by now the children had sensed an impending change in their lives. They had a longer playtime too; the teachers called the Standard Six girl and told her to boil the kettle a second time, and they had four cups of tea each, talking over the changes this dislocation would mean for the Roko community. The older children had no homework that night. She broke it brightly and suddenly to the O’Reillys; ‘You might be wiping the dishes yourself soon, Mrs O’Reilly,’ and there was a renewal of the wave of excited interest which was so pleasant for her. The wave gathered force; people, meeting her, would say, ‘I hear you’re leaving us soon,’ and she found it difficult to get to school on time unless she left home earlier than usual. There was a lull in the wave—it reminded her of ‘the plateau in the learning process’, the ‘period of consolidation’ she had heard of, studying educational principles at training college —but slowly and inevitably all the machinery of the ritual of farewell oiled itself into motion. She caught, but pretended not to hear, hints in conversation about a surprise gift party; with a gesture of stoicism she left her room when Miss James asked her could she have a few words with her class in private, and asked the children to bring threepence each (or the Maori children a penny) so that they could buy Miss Dane a parting gift. (Some of the mothers complained in their own kitchens but not in public that they were contributing to three or four gifts, from the schoolchildren, from the church, from the institute and from the Home and School Association. Miss Dane herself had inaugurated the H. and S.A. and Mr O’Reilly, in a taunting mood, suggested she had started it and the Red Cross group in anticipation of extra presents: Miss Dane for once was caught out and did not know what to reply, because her line was to pretend to be unaware that anyone should consider giving her anything.) Then the wave combed into a triumphant crest; there were the self-effacing, under-stated but all-the-same flattering speeches from a president, a secretary, the parson, the chairman of the school committee at several functions attended generally by the same people (the O’Reillys went to the church farewell, even though it was Protestant, because they felt someone should escort Miss Dane; it was like giving away a bride); there were Miss Dane’s bashful replies, she didn’t know what to say and it was as well because her lack of words conveyed the required impression of surprise—though for weeks it had been an open secret that the farewells were due; she said she had thoroughly page 50 enjoyed every moment of her stay in Roko, she hoped that she had done all that she should have in her job, but it was a schoolteacher’s lot never to be able to achieve everything one hoped. She found it difficult to vary her speech and five times she had to face an audience almost identical. But she knew it was not the words that mattered; what was important was that she should perform her part in the ritual; she would not admit it but she knew it to be a period of excusable insincerities and a display of goodwill not altogether genuine, as at Christmas. So did the audience, but it was a custom that gave them great pleasure: on occasions like this the Maori mothers were greeted on terms of unusual equality: ‘Hullo, Mrs Hakatui, how are the children?’ For two or three years the people would remember her and date events according to their nearness to her departure: ‘It was about the time Miss Dane left the school,’ then by that time her successor would be thinking of shifting and Miss Dane’s memory would gently have sunk like a soggy leaf to the dregs of a pool. There was usually an amusing incident that added spice to the procedure, the chairman who dropped his h’s and said done for did, the parson’s puns, Mr O’Reilly having to take out his dentures to remove them from a treacle gem. (‘That was one of Mrs Connor’s—she can’t bake,’ the whispers circulated.) Then Miss Dane would slowly and deliberately unwrap the present and lay down the wrapping paper and open the box and display the gift while everyone gasped with pleasure though they had known what had been inside the parcel, and Miss Dane would play at being overwhelmed. It became so much of a habit after five times that she felt hypocritical and wondered if she was becoming a cynic. Certainly at the end of her last week she was worn out. Then there was her packing, and the records she had to wind up at the school, her conscientious instructions to Miss James and notes for her successor. The new teacher was to stay at O’Reillys’ (the McPhersons had tried to get her even at the risk of being thought greedy trying to board both teachers, but rather to the disappointment of the district, it was rumoured she was a Catholic, and O’Reillys’ was the only place for her) and local gossip was concerned with her now—Miss Dane was to do a quiet fade-out. Fortunately there was to be no final leave-taking at the train because she was going by car, calling first at New Plymouth to see her mother, then driving to Wellington and shipping and railing the car to Greymouth. When she had stowed all her cases into the boot and the back seat of her Morris Eight she was genuinely overwhelmed and kissed Mrs O. and they both cried, and Mr and the eldest son stood there silently immune to, but approving, tears in womenfolk, and shook hands page 51 with her, and Mrs O’Reilly came running out again with a parcel of egg sandwiches and buttered scones individually wrapped in grease-proof paper, packed in a boot-box, and impulsively gave her something Miss Dane in any other circumstances would have been bound to refuse, a St Christopher medal. ‘I won’t wear it,’ she made the mental reservation, ‘but I’ll carry it in my pocket in memory of a kind thought.’ ‘Really, Mrs O’Reilly,’ she said and cried again, ‘I don’t trust myself to drive now.’ ‘The medal will help you,’ Mrs O’Reilly began, but her husband drowned her voice: ‘I always reckoned women shouldn’t be allowed to drive anyway,’ and she laughed with tears in her eyes, and waving and looking round at them and watching for the gate at the same time while they followed the car, she saw the last she would ever see of Roko; a final scene that for years she found too intense to hear remembering.