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.
When she got out of the train at Stillwater she had still hardly recovered from her emotion on emerging from the Otira tunnel and seeing mountains and bush: she couldn’t imagine country more wild and she was surprised to find she was the only passenger in the carriage who seemed to be affected. They took it so casually, yet she couldn’t lay the fear that she had committed herself to two years in a wilderness. She still felt a stranger in an unknown country when she stood waiting where the railway porter had directed her, at the side of the road, for the bus. When it came she struggled aboard with the one case she had taken from the car in Wellington, and found that the bus was full except for a side seat at the back. Everyone stared at her and she wondered: ‘Do they belong to Coal Flat? Do they know I’m the new teacher?’ A young man rose and said, ‘Here,’ and took her case and stowed it on the rack. She was grateful but wordless that he hadn’t asked her permission first. She sat down, troubled a little by the tobacco smoke in this back part of the bus. There was a lot of noise it seemed. People were talking loudly across the seats and someone up front was exchanging cheeky remarks with someone in the back. ‘Wild West,’ she thought indulgently; and studied the people in the back seat. There was the dark young man who had helped her with her case. ‘The strong silent type’ she thought: it was part of her bright sense of humour to have a label ready-made for every person or incident: she always liked to know what attitude to take to anything. He sat smoking, not saying anything, with a fugitive look of disdain, an animal masculine pride page 52 that made her look furtively away. There were two men talking thickly from beer (‘One over the eight,’ she thought) about a coming race-meeting. Beyond them in the corner an elderly man lay sloppily, drunk and half asleep, with his hat off and his old-fashioned collar open and tie loosened; and two top buttons of his fly were undone. ‘Really, it is disgusting,’ she thought; when he noticed her looking at him. ‘Don’ min’ me, lady,’ he said thickly. ‘I’ve jus’ been to town today. My daughter she’s jus’ had another boy. Three gran’chil’ren lady.’ Miss Danc flushed and tried to smile and tried to look out of the window but she couldn’t do that without turning right round; she was hurt that people looked at her to see who he was talking to, but that no one tried to stop him. In Roko no one got drunk like that (except an occasional Maori) and if anyone did he was carefully nursed to avoid any breach of the conventions, and it took him years to live down the talk that followed as retribution. The old man continued, ‘She’s righ’, lady. Don’ you worry about ol’ Tom,’ and then began to retch and too helpless to get a handkerchief, spewed a little stale beer on the floor. ‘Surely now they’ll do something,’ she thought; ‘hasn’t anyone noticed?’ She wanted to call the driver and tell him to stop the bus, put the man off, let him be sick outside. But all anyone did was the young man handed him a handkerchief to wipe his mouth. She looked at the young man for sympathy; she compressed her lips and found the courage to say, ‘It’s disgusting.’ The young man shattered her mood with a frank slightly quizzical look that to her seemed heathen and bland and said, ‘He’s happy’. She felt she was riding to Sodom.
‘Happy?’ she said involuntarily,
The young man studied her for a second with the facial equivalent of a shrug, ‘You don’t belong to the Coast,’ he said.
‘No,’ she said, shyly warming up to the prospect of introducing herself. ‘It’s my first visit.’
‘Well no, not exactly’—she was recovering her familiar archness. ‘I’ve come here to work. I’m the new infant mistress at Coal Flat.’
‘Oh, a schoolteacher,’ he said with just a touch of indulgence.
People looked at her and stared and looked away without much comment. She was disappointed. When she was travelling for the first time to Roko, she had quietly mentioned to the woman next to her who she was; and then the woman self-effacingly turned round and whispered to the people behind her, and the whisper went guiltily round the bus, and she sat pretending not to hear it but glad to be the target of stolen stares. She began to doubt all she’d heard of West Coast hospitality.page 53
‘You’ll like the Coast,’ the young man said. ‘Everybody does. Can’t keep away from it myself.’
This was better. ‘Oh, I always try anything once,’ she said with what she thought was the spirit of the pioneers; it usually impressed people.
‘You’ll like the Flat,’ he said. ‘It’s the nicest town I know.’
There was something in his bearing that fascinated her, a pagan independence; his eyes looking at her and frankly taking her in, recognized no don’t-trespass notices. She was used to knowing deep down that she was a woman and therefore desirable to a man, and she was used to being treated by men with politeness and distance. Since training college she had never known any man beyond exchanges that could be safely overheard in a train; this man cheated, she felt; he started where others left off, he established direct contact with people when he spoke. She felt awkward and shy, and was relieved when his eyes contracted out of the meeting, when he lit a cigarette and with sensuous thoughtfulness blew smoke-rings—or tried to, she thought, because the air wasn’t still enough.
The drunkard had fallen asleep and was breathing heavily. People seemed to have forgotten him. She turned awkwardly and looked out of the window; on one side of the road, bush and occasional small sawmills with fires of waste timber and piles of sawdust, on the other the railway line and the swampy skirts of the river. English willows and bulrushes and little pools with flax-clumps and stands of tall stark kahikatea and skinny young silver-pine. ‘There’s the Flat,’ the young man said, and she looked where he pointed, thinking, ‘It’s rude to point,’ and saw in the shadow of a mountain range a forlorn cluster of roofs and a halo of chimney-smoke perched on a terrace. ‘Flat?’ she thought, ‘I thought it would be a river-flat. That’s a terrace.’ They passed a gold dredge in a side-valley, sitting behind its tailings. Eventually they crossed a wooden bridge across a wide riverbed skirted with willows and passed through old tailings overgrown with blackberry and red with lichen. The road began to climb and wind and on one side she looked straight down into beech forest, and then the bus came out to the main road of Coal Flat, the cemetery first, then a long double row of wooden houses irregularly spaced, half of them without paint, with grey lichen on the wood, standing in untended sections wild with long grass and blackberry. The bus seemed to have no regular stops, the driver knew where anyone wanted to get off and stopped there; ‘Rafferty rules,’ she thought.
‘Will there be anyone to meet me?’ she wondered. ‘Where am I to board? Not in one of those shacks, I hope.’ She had guessed by page 54 now that it was a mining town and she was worried. She had wired the secretary of the school committee that she was coming: it was up to him to arrange her board; the headmaster would surely have seen that he did anyway. But when the bus pulled up at the post office and the remaining passengers moved to get out she saw no one waiting that looked like a secretary of a school committee. ‘He’ll be a miner himself,’ she thought with fear. The young man took her case without a word and left it on the footpath and left her without a word; she felt insulted, ignored, and especially when he supported the drunkard across the street. She looked helplessly. There were men coming with crib-tins under the arm, or sugar bags slung from the shoulder, some with towels around their necks. There were two groups of women talking in accents from Clydeside and Yorkshire and Tyneside. There were two boys riding bikes in circles across the road. ‘Don’t they teach them the rules of the road here?’ There were three other boys and a girl, all untidily dressed, with dirty legs, chasing one another, trying to punch one another and shouting; one of them swore. One of the women, a Scot, said, ‘You cuh ouh your bliddy sweerin’, Peher Herlihy,’ and Peter Herlihy made a face at her. Bewildered, Miss Dane accosted the first man she saw, a miner with a sugar bag and a butt hanging on his lip.
‘Excuse me, can you tell me please where I might find board here?’
The miner stopped and first looked hard at her face so that she was embarrassed. ‘Well, lady, the best place’d be the pub.’
‘The pub?’ she said nervously.
‘How long are you here for?’
‘Two years’ (she almost added ‘D.V. and W.P.’ but didn’t). ‘I’m to start at the school, you see.’
‘Oh, a schoolteacher. Well you’d best go to Palmers’, lady. The teachers always stay there. It’s the best place in this town, even if I do say it meself. I used to own the place meself.’
‘Is there no private board available?’
‘Well, there’s no one can be bothered with boarders here. And, I don’t mean any offence, but, ask yourself, it’s a bit hard on the kids to have a schoolteacher staying with you. There’s only the pubs, and believe me, the other two aren’t much; they’re all right for the likes of me, for a miner if he’s not too fussy, but for anyone that’s had a middle-class upbringing like yourself’ (Miss Dane looked helpless: she couldn’t cope with these comments) ‘Palmers’ is the best. Give us your case. I’m going over to have a few pints.’
Nervously she followed him across the road and entered the page 55 passage, trying not to hear the loud talk from the bar. From the far end of the passage came whoops of excitement. The miner left her case and went down the passage. He came back and said, ‘You’ve come at a bad time. Their boy’s just come home. She’s got him by the balls.’ Miss Dane for a split second suspected obscenity, but she refused to recognize it; it was unbelievable, it must be some harmless local idiom. ‘She’s like a broody old hen, she’s got to have all her chicks around her. Flora will be up in a minute.’
‘Thanks awfully,’ she said.
‘Well, I’ll have my pint. You’ll have one of my boys. Don’t whack him too hard.’ He opened the bar door and she darted a glance at the drinkers and looked away again without letting herself see anything clearly enough to remember. Waiting with her suitcase she tried again, watching them through the slide. There were several men leaning on the bar, silent and stolid, just staring ahead of them. When they saw her they stared at her without great curiosity and without embarrassment. She heard the barman say, ‘One without a collar, Jimmy?’
‘Your boy’s home again, Don?’
‘There’ll have to be a bit of a spree tonight.’
‘Drinks on the house?’
‘Not too many of them, Jimmy. You ought to know that yourself.’
‘No publican ever got fat giving away the drinks.’
The door opened and a man with a silver blaze of receding hair came forward. He was dressed in an old suit and he had a black singlet on beneath the suit. He wore spectacles.
‘Miss Dane, is it?’ She was surprised; by now she didn’t expect anyone to know of her. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘My name’s Henderson. I’m the secretary of the school committee. Mr Cairns told me you’d arrived.’
‘Yes, he carried your case over.’
It struck her as funny that that man should be called Mr; but what else could she have expected? In any case she was attracted to this man: his voice and his manner carried her back into the habits she was familiar with—politeness, courtesy, the social decencies. She was prepared to forgive his being a miner—after all, it was a mining town, someone had to dig the coal, and it showed the parents took an interest in their school—and she was ready to show herself eager to be accepted in Coal Flat.
‘Is this where I’m to stay, Mr Henderson?’
‘Yes, Miss Dane. I spoke to Mrs Palmer about it and it’s all fixed page 56 up. You’ll find them nice people—you won’t get better in Coal Flat. I didn’t meet the bus, Miss Dane, because I knew you’d find your way here.’
‘Well—I didn’t know where I was to stay….’
‘Oh, anyone would have told you. You’d only have had to say you were the teacher and they’d have sent you to Palmers’.’
She couldn’t help wrinkling her nose at his beery breath; she tried to suspend breathing; but she was prepared to make allowances now; ‘After all he’s not drunk.’
‘Oh well, I’ve found my future home and castle, that’s the main thing.’ Mr Henderson might be the bridgehead of her introduction to the town; she found her mind working in terms of the Roko pattern. ‘She’s a bright and friendly wee soul,’ was what she imagined people would say of her: she was careful to give the right first impression.
‘Oh yes.’ Arthur Hendersen was all smiles. He was acting in an official capacity; meeting a teacher like this made him feel his life was justified since he held so important a place in the community. She wondered why he hadn’t met the bus. The truth was he felt ashamed to meet her in the clothes he wore to the mine; yet he was afraid that if he left the pit early to change into a better suit, and a collar and tie, the other miners would jeer at him. ‘You’ll like us up here. I suppose you’ve heard about West Coast hospitality. Well, we just take people as we find them and we expect them to do the same.’ His broad but fussy smiling face jerked up at her with lips primly closed in a brittle simper: a diplomatic point neatly and triumphantly driven home, the lips and eyes seemed to say. ‘We’ve a nice school, the new one, it’s only ten years old now. Still, you’ll see it all tomorrow. And you’ll meet Mr Heath in the morning too —he’s the headmaster. Then there’s young Rogers stays here too, he’ll be professional company for you, he’s a great favourite with the Palmers. It’s a pity Miss Johnson isn’t still here, but then she was only relieving till you came; you’ll have her room. Oh you’ll get to know them all, Miss Dane; in a week’s time you’ll feel as if you’ve known the place the years, that’s how friendly it is.’
Miss Dane was reassured by the avuncular manner and the gold-rimmed spectacles. She gathered courage: ‘Mr Henderson, I’m afraid I’m not very keen on a hotel atmosphere. I wondered rather if there weren’t any private homes that offered board….’
Arthur Henderson contorted his face into the overdone and piggish pout with which, in any public capacity, he met a challenge. ‘Well, that raises a difficult question, Miss Dane. Confidentially, I’ve always felt the same myself….’page 57
‘Yes, it’s hardly the place for a teacher, Mr Henderson. It looks bad to the children.’
‘I agree. I agree, Miss Dane. But when you know this town as I know it, Miss Dane’—his voice was lowered and rhetorically conspiratorial; and Miss Dane’s misgivings returned—‘no one wants boarders here, Miss Dane. They can’t be bothered with them. They just can’t be bothered putting themselves out. And to tell you the God’s honest truth, there’s only one or two houses here that would be worthy of you. But if you stay here in the meantime, perhaps later on we might he able to arrange something. Here’s Mrs Palmer now. Hello Mrs Palmer. I was just telling Miss Dane she’d be very happy with you.’
‘Thank you, Mr Henderson,’ Mrs Palmer said with cold politeness, then warmly, ‘How are you Miss Dane?’ and grabbed her shoulders and rocked her. Miss Dane would in Roko, have expected her to kiss her, but Mrs Palmer didn’t hold with women kissing one another. ‘Excuse me leaving you so long, but I’m all excited.’ She picked up the suitcase and skipped in a circle, one arm up as in Highland dancing. ‘My boy’s come home,’ she said. ‘When you’re a mother you’ll know all about it, Miss Dane.’ She tried to sing the words of a Tin Pan Alley tune ‘My Guy’s Come Home’, but she never could manage riff rhythms or any jazz rhythms—they bear for a way of feeling different from hers. She called through the slide, ‘Hullo, Jimmy. Hullo, Jack. Mum’s going on the ran-tan tonight, eh? My boy’s come home….Hullo, Mr Herlihy; what? Yes, we’ll kill the fatted calf all right, nothing’s too good for my boy….Excuse me, Miss Dane…. Damn cheek,’ she muttered.
Miss Dane was overwhelmed; a dark powerful big-built woman had borne down on her and grabbed her suitcase and given her a warm welcome and talked to a barful of boozers all in one breath, almost: surely there was some Maori in her too? ‘Did you get off the bus, Miss Dane?…. Then you must have come up with Don. Oh he’s a fine lad, Miss Dane; he’d be any mother’s joy and pride, Oh, you’ll like the Coast, Miss Dane. We’re very friendly people. Mind you, not everyone in Coal Flat is up to much; but you can go out on that street and ask anyone about Palmers’ and they’d tell you it’s the best you’d get in Coal Flat. Mind you, I’m not that way I blow my own trumpet. But I just wanted to reassure you, like, when you’ve come all this way, you know, and coming to a strange town, you like to know what sort of a place you’re moving into. But anyway you can stay here for the two years if you want to, Miss Dane, or if you don’t like it, you can leave any time you like; page 58 we don’t hold you obliged to stay, if you know what I mean. We’ve got another teacher staying with us too, Miss Dane—he’s another of my boys.’
‘You’ve got a son teaching at the school, Mrs Palmer?’
‘Well, I’m not his mother but we treat him as one of the family. We’ve known him for years.’ Miss Dane felt a slight touch of jealousy: she saw a school full of teachers entrenched in the affection of the community while she went unnoticed. ‘I’ll see if he’s about. Flor! Flora!’
From the far and of the passage an attractive girl came—Miss Dane was sure there was Maori blood in the family. ‘Hullo, Miss Dane,’ she said with unaffected warmth and shook hands with the slightest and most natural-seeming suggestion of a curtsey.
‘Flor, where’s Paul?’
‘He’s out just now, Mum. I think he went to see old Mrs Seldom.’
‘Never mind. You’ll see him at dinner. Dinner’s at six o’clock. you’ll hear the gong.’
‘Did you have a nice trip, Miss Dane?’ Miss Dane was attracted to this girl. She didn’t bear down on one like her mother, she was unaffected, and yet, it was evident to Miss Dane, she had deliberately improved herself according to good models: her speech, her manner were faultless. ‘You go back and talk to Don, Mum,’ Flora said. ‘I’ll show Miss Dane her room.’
When she had unpacked and washed, Miss Dane found there was still a half-hour before tea. She didn’t trust herself to walk round the town. Instead she took out a writing-pad and began a long and archly humorous letter to Mrs O’Reilly telling her of her first impressions of Coal Flat. She had written six pages without stopping when the gong sounded, and she was as yet only with Mr Cairns—‘as Fate disclosed was his …’ nomenclature? No, she shouldn’t show off her education to Mrs O.; that would be intellectual snobbery: ‘as Fate disclosed was his title.’ ‘Really, I should write a novel,’ she thought.