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


page 59


Flora was right; Rogers was visiting Mrs Seldom.

At the post office the main road of Coal Flat right-angled towards the hills flanking the Paparoas and a quarter-mile farther on it entered the gully of Coal Creek. Across the creek was the mine-mouth, at the end of a bridge that carried perpetual races of boxes to spill their coal into the bins by the road. Here too was the miners’ bath-house and the mine office. The creek at this point had eaten deep into soft soapy-looking grey-blue limestone; its course at some spell centuries before had become entrenched, every twist recorded twenty feet below its banks; twenty feet of smooth cliff prettily softened with moss and drooping with long crisp dripping fronds of blechnum fern, which glistened in the sun, with black dead fronds rotting underneath. The valley, however, was wide enough to allow the road to follow it till it petered out at Roa on the hillside. Between the mine-mouth and the houses of Coal Flat, thirty feet below the road in a little clearing in the kaamahi and fuchsia and young bush by the bank of the creek, was Mrs Seldom’s little house, reached by a narrow steep path from side of the road.

Mrs Seldom had lived alone for ten years. Old Ned Seldom had been a deputy in the mine, a man respected amongst the miners for his fairness, honesty and his propensity for hard work, but in his time an obstinate enemy of the union and of all socialist movements which he saw as rationalizations of laziness: I.W.W., he would say, stood for I won’t work. They had had two children, a boy and a girl. Nora grew up a thin sharp girl who kept to herself; Jack grew up with a hard head and a refusal to agree with anything his own mind couldn’t admit. Jack was the occasion of the Seldom strike, and his stubbornness in that affair, when he was one man against a whole town of 800 people, became the cause of his parents: when he lost, and the company, reluctant to lose him but more reluctant to lose time and money, sacked him, his parents turned against the town: page 60 Ned Seldom to no one in the mine except in connection his work, Mrs Seldom vowed that no one from Coal Flat would ever have a cup of tea in her house. Jack went to Greymouth and got a job at the foundry as an engineer. Then Nora suddenly declared her intention to marry a man who had been training to be a priest and had given it up: her parents made mother vow, that if she did, they would never see her again. Nora was just as stubborn and left home and was married in the vestibule of the Catholic Church in Greymouth—she was as stubborn too in her refusal to change her religion for him. Then Ned retired; forty years underground had told on his health, and one day as he was climbing the path to go to the grocer’s the one that hadn’t boycotted the Seldoms during the strike) his heart seized and he fell and rolled into a blackberry bush. Mrs Seldom had him buried in Karoro cemetery, in Greymouth: ‘Ned and I will never be buried in Coal Flat.’ So she lived on in her small wood house at enmity with the town: she did speak to people on her few excursions to the shop—the grocer, the baker and the milkman delivered her supplies and left them on her doorstep but she remained loyal to her vow; no local person had had a cup of tea in her house for eighteen years: when Mrs Seldom vowed she meant it. She had conviction in the power of her malevolence: once she had put a curse on a neighbour’s cow that had strayed into her section, and within a week the cow was dead.

It was a duty call that took Rogers to see Mrs Seldom. When be was a youth his mother had been in hospital; Mrs Seldom had been in the next bed with a diabetic ulcer. She had taken one of her strange warm likings to Mrs Rogers and she was interested in Rogers as the son of his mother. He had used to visit her when he had—been in Coal Flat before going into the army; he had often delivered messages for her or bought small requirements for her in his week-end visits to his home in Greymouth. He still felt a little strange at visiting her because the Flat was so divided by enmities and feuds (she disapproved of socialists and he was friendly with the doctor; the Palmers knew of her only by reputation, as a queer old recluse, and they thought it strange that he should know her because they were used to judging a man by the company he kept). Still he called on her occasionally and he knew she was glad to see hints that gave him pleasure, though he accused himself of weakness.

Her kitchen was plain and dark from being in the shadow of the slope, with a square window not very big. The walls were hung with cheap prints, a series of illustrations cot from the grocer’s Christmas calendars: a girl nuzzling a horse; three kittens with a ball of wool; a baby in a bath; a bush scene. There was an old- page 61 fashioned open fireplace with a hot coal fire (she kept it burning winter and summer) with a colonial oven alongside it. She had just made a cup of tea from water in a big iron kettle, blackleaded every morning, but finely coated now with ash from the cinders. She didn’t bake much now, and they ate soft shop biscuits imprinted Wine and Tennis; Rogers had to keep rubbing his teeth with his tongue to remove the mushy coating the biscuits left on them: Mrs Seldom had dentures. They drank from big wide cups of thick china at least forty years old. On the mantelpiece was a bottle of ink, a steel pen and a pencil, a writing pad, a pair of scissors and a collection of bills and receipts from the grocer and the baker stuck in the crack between the mantelpiece and the wall.

‘So you’ve got that bastard in your class,’ Mrs Seldom was slowly saying. ‘He is. He’s a bastard and I’ll never know him as anything else. He’ll come to a had end that one; my Christ, he will.’

Both Ned and his wife were descended from families from Northern Ireland; though they had been born in Tasmania and came from there as a young couple to New Zealand. She still had some of the harsh nasal way of speaking; and she swore habitually after a forgotten manner, though, if her grandparents had been Presbyterian, she had no belief herself; she hadn’t been inside a church since she was married (the children were christened at home) and she had never asked herself did she believe in God. If ever she had, Jack in his youth had demonstrated time and again that the church was a money-making racket, that priests and parsons were drones in society; to shoot them all would be a mercy to the world. The Seldom family feared hypocrisy worse than any other sin.

‘He’s not a happy kid,’ Rogers said. ‘He’s had a rough bringing-up.’

‘And it serves him right then. Ned and I knew no good would come of it. I’ll never know him; not if I saw him walk in that door now, I wouldn’t know him. When I was at the grocer’s Mrs Porter said, “There’s Nora’s boy, Mrs Seldom.” I said, “Let me close my eyes then, for I never want to set eyes on him.” And I did. I shut my eyes. “Tell me when he’s gone, Mrs Porter,” I said, “for I’ll not open them till he’s out of the way.”—“You’re a damn determined woman,” she said. She didn’t like it. No, she didn’t like it. “My Jesus, I am,” I said. “My Jesus, I’m determined.”’

‘I wish I could help him.’

‘You’d be wasting your time. That you would. Wasting your time on a bastard.’

‘But he can’t help it, Mrs Seldom. It’s not his fault.’

‘He’s got to pay the price. It’s the way things go, Paul Rogers. If page 62 Nora had listened to Ned and me, there wouldn’t have been any bastard to worry over. Ned said to her—and my God she was a good gel then, Nora was, the best gel in Coal Flat, if I say it myself, she was good in the house, she could bake better than me, I could leave everything to her if I had to go to Greymouth for the day, and Ned used to say I should go more often because he liked Nora’s dinners the best’—she chuckled heavily and slowly—‘Ah, she was the pick of Coal Flat. But she doesn’t exist for me now. No, Ned said to her, “It’s your choice, Nora. But if you’re set on running off with that Doolan bugger, we won’t know you. We won’t come to the wedding, and from then on you won’t exist for us. It’ll be just as if you’re dead.” Yes, Ned told her. He did. And Jack said he had a good mind to thrash some sense into her. It’s a pity he didn’t,’—she was caught in an old anger at an opportunity lost—‘it’s a pity he didn’t thrash her till she was screaming for him to stop. She’d ha’ been a good gel still, and she could have got a dozen men better in Coal Flat—a dozen men better.’

‘Mrs Seldom, you know what I reckon? You should forget—forgive and forget?’

‘Forget? I’ll be in my grave before I forget, Paul Rogers. Yes, In my grave. Who could forget a disobedient daughter? Not any of the Seldoms, oh no, not any of the Seldoms. We’re a stubborn lot, and you should know it. Nora was stubborn too, she thought we’d get soft and give in. Oh no, Ned and I wouldn’t give in; no, not Ned and I. So she packed all her things, she was a determined gel, she wasn’t strong but she carried her tin trunk by herself and stood by this door. We didn’t look at her. “Are you going, Nora?” Ned said, “Yes, Dad,” she said. She called him Dad right up to the end. She was Ned’s favourite too. And Ned just turned his back and said, “We’ll remember you up till this minute but not after.” And he said, “When you go, your name goes too. We’ll never bring up your name in this house again while I’m alive.” Oh, she was disappointed, I could see it: she thought we might have got weak then and given in. Oh no, we wouldn’t have given in; no, not Ned and I. So she put her trunk on her shoulder and she climbed up the path. Jack was looking out the window, and he said, “I reckon I ought to give her a hand with the trunk,” and Ned forbade it. “Jack!” he said. Just like that. “Jack!” It’s the only time I ever heard Ned speak sharp to Jack.’

How many times had Rogers heard this before, yet each time its cruel and dignified austerity struck him as if it was fresh. He knew what would come next: Herlihy was waiting for her at the railway station. ‘“Skulking at the train. What sort of a man is he,” Jack page 63 said, “if he can’t come and call for her?”—He wouldn’t put a foot on my section and get off it alive,” Ned said. That he wouldn’t. He was slow to anger, was Ned, but he was determined,’ Herlihy’s name was never mentioned in the house: it was still an occasion calling for tact and an intimate knowledge of the family to visit Mrs Seldom: they had called him ‘the Doolan bugger’—Doolan on their tongues meant an Irish Catholic. Nora they had never mentioned while Ned was alive; Ned took the photos that were taken of her as a girl, her bangle and her school books, and cast-off clothes and Mrs Seldom herself never knew whether he had hidden them or burnt them or buried them. Nora showed up at Ned’s funeral at Karoro, and for the first time in six years Mrs Seldom articulated her name: ‘You’re a bad gel, Nora Seldom,’ she called from ten yards off, in a voice that awed the few people who came to the funeral. ‘You were a good gel, and what are you now but a Doolan priest’s housekeeper?’ Nora, fierce and proud as ever, bitter in her pride that could maintain an honest emotion in the stares of a curious crowd, stared back at her through tears. Her mother, tall and flabby-stout, didn’t budge; her face, blue and blotched from diabetes, was as proud as Nora’s. ‘Ah, you’re a sorry gel now you’ve brought your father to an early grave.’

Since then, in her house and to the few people she spoke to outside—mostly elderly people, to whom she always maintained the attitudes congealed during the strike—she had talked a lot of Nora, recurring time and again to Nora’s departure, and to their own stubbornness in their vow. It seemed that what was left of her life would be filled by a continual repetition of that story. Rogers read it as a mark of relenting; with Ned gone, she wasn’t so sure, he thought; she was trying to reassure herself. So he had come to her, vaguely in the hope of helping her grandson, the ‘bastard’, Peter Herlihy.

It had been on the second day of school that Peter had joined Rogers’s class. Truman Heath ushered him in, a skulking suspicious boy of eight years in a khaki cotton sunhat, and a navy raincoat (though it was a fine day). ‘This laddie’s name is Herlihy,’ Heath said. ‘He’s from a convent. They say he’s for Standard one. You’d best make sure of his reading and his number and see if he’s good enough for this class. Well, son, we’ll just put you in here for the meantime, and perhaps later we’ll shift you.’ Heath gave him a fatherly pat on the shoulders and Peter Herlihy shrank at his touch. ‘Don’t be too soft with him, Mr Rogers,’ Heath said. ‘He should be used to discipline, coming from a convent.’

Rogers gave him a desk to sit in, and helped him take off his coat. page 64 ‘Hang it in the corridor, Peter,’ he said. ‘We’ll give you a hook of your own later.’ But the boy clutched his coat and looked with big distrustful eyes from his swarthy face. ‘Would you rather keep it here? Then fold it up and put it on the floor under your desk.’ But he held it firm, and Rogers had caught the words, fierce but mouthed against a strong force of distrust, ‘It’ll get dirty.’ So he said, ‘Well, I’ll hang it on the back of my chair,’ and when the boy still looked hunted and hating, ‘You’ll be able to see it from here, Peter. You can keep your eye on it all day. And if anyone tries to take it, I’ll be after him.’ The class had laughed, and Peter’s eyes had lit not with laughter but with relish; but he had kept his eyes on that coat at intervals all through the day.

It had taken him several days to accept his new surroundings. On his third day at school he was trustful enough to take off his sunhat, and to leave his coat on a hook outside the room. But he avoided his classmates in play, and soon Rogers noticed that the other children, scenting his loneliness like leprosy, had made him game of gang attacks and jeers. Once Rogers looked up to see a timid underfed little girl crying, and under her seat was Peter, pinching her legs, trying to pull at her bloomers. He was trying himself out in the strange freedom he sensed in this classroom; it was plain he considered Rogers soft. Mrs Hansen would look out of the staffroom window at morning-tea. ‘They’re chasing young Herlihy,’ she said. ‘I hope they give it to him good and proper. Plenty of leather for him, Paul. He’s a nasty unhealthy brat. The parents are both mad anyway.’

‘How’s that boy’s reading?’ Heath said.

‘His reading is had. He repeats it from memory, but he can’t recognize the words. But his arithmetic is ahead of the rest of the class.’

‘Well, we’ll leave him where he is for the meantime. Try and concentrate on his reading.’

‘I’d put him back with the babies,’ Mrs Hansen had said, for the sake of disagreeing with Heath.

‘Oh, there’s no need for that as yet.’

Then on another day Rogers had found Peter Herlihy pulling a girl’s hair. He had a ruler in his hand at the time and he impulsively hit him twice on the legs. It was part of his theory that slapping in anger was healthy, but deliberate and measured punishment was harmful. Peter cried, but in submission; he understood that treatment and he now recognized Rogers as master. Later Rogers asked him why he had done it. ‘I like making girls cry,’ Peter said. ‘Girls are mad. They’re soft. I can make any girl cry.’

He was a test case for Rogers’s theories. ‘What he needs is love page 65 and attention,’ he thought. ‘If I could have him under my wing for a year, I could regenerate him.’ But he had thought of all he had heard of his upbringing and his parents: Mike Herlihy sour and drunk in Palmers’ bar, Mrs Seldom’s tales of Nora, his one glimpse of Nora making a snap raid on the town to do her shopping. From all accounts she lived like a nun in her little house, on the river-flat below the terrace that supported Coal Flat, on the far side of the town from her mother’s house, not far from the dredge: a four-roomed wooden house, badly in need of a coat of paint, at the side of the road that led past the dredge to Moonlight, in a weedy section with its sentry-box lavatory and a fowlrun at the back, and behind that maahoe and maanuka and blackberry and then acres of tailings from an extinct dredge, regular and streamlined as Sahara dunes, red with lichen, with long grass on the rainy side of each of the older dunes, slowly being reclaimed by gorse and blackberry, and behind that Dirty Mary’s Creek itself and farther beyond, the dredge, screaming and gouging day and night, the source of Mike’s pay-envelope. From all accounts she spent her day cleaning and polishing and dusting with a fanatic zeal; they said she rinsed her hands every time she put wood on the fire, that Mike had to take his boots off before she would let him into the kitchen, that he couldn’t sit on the best sofa and that was why he was always in the pub. They said it was no wonder the kid was mad, because she was mad and Mike was a peculiar fellow too. The case history was obvious, Rogers thought; he was an unwanted child, the father was beyond taking the responsibility of bringing him up, the mother wasn’t human. But he wanted to know the lay-out of their house: physical accidents in a child’s environment might cause unguessed consequences: after that he trusted his own emotional insight to piece together Peter’s problem. Where did he sleep? If there were four rooms in the house, and if it was true that Nora had her own bedroom, then there was the kitchen and the sitting-room that was never used because they had no visitors and if they had, Nora wouldn’t have let them past the kitchen; that meant Peter must sleep in the same room as one of them. Which parent obsessed him most? Which one did he side with? If he couldn’t find out elsewhere, Rogers had thought, he would have to ask the boy but as yet he didn’t want to make him conscious of such interest in him. He had hoped that Mrs Seldom might drop some chance remark about it. But he might have known better: she had never seen Nora’s house, let alone visited it.

‘Yes, I’ve still got my wedding dress,’ she was saying. ‘It’s been packed away from the moths all these years and never used again. page 66 And not likely to be. No, not likely to be now. Jack’s got two boys but no girls. It was always meant for Nora, that wedding dress. But she lost the right to it. She was married in the clothes she left in. Yes, straight down to Greymouth they went and they were married in the door of the church. On the steps almost. They couldn’t even be married inside. I don’t call that a wedding. Oh no, Nora was never married. Ah, she’s a sorry gel now is Nora. Yes, I’m going to be laid out in that dress when I die. No one else will wear my wedding dress now: it was my mother’s before me. It won’t be long now, Paul Rogers. I’ll be up in Karoro cemetery with Ned before many years are gone. And I don’t want any Coal Flat people to come to my funeral. No, not to my funeral. I told old Mrs Cairns the other day. I said, “Don’t come to my funeral, Polly Cairns, for I won’t rest if you do. No, nor any of your friends either.”’

‘What will happen to your house, Mrs Seldom?’

‘It all goes to Jack. Yes, everything’s for Jack. If I thought that anyone in Coal Flat would get anything of mine I’d put a match to it, that I would. Yes, when I felt my time coming I’d spread some kerosene and I’d rake the coal out of the fireplace on to the floor, and then I’d go outside and lie down on the track and die there. And I’d die happy enough.’

She sat heavy and musing, her face calm in its proud malevolence, under the grey hair combed habitually into a loose and straggly bun. Diabetes had left her thinner, and except for a grotesquely paunchy belly, she was gaunt, her shoulders bent a little and supporting her long frock like a coat hanger; but when she stood the frock and apron hanging from her paunch gave an impression of stoutness and firmness. She switched the conversation. ‘How long are you here for then?’

‘I don’t know. Two or three years I think.’

‘Time enough to get sick of Coal Flat. Well, come and see me often, Paul Rogers, for I’ll always be glad to see the son of Nellie Rogers. Yes, I saw her die in the hospital—the nurses killed her and that’s God’s truth. Many’s the time I’ve seen them neglect her because she was too patient to complain. Yes, she was far too patient. Not me, I’d ha’ complained. Come another time. There’s not many in Coal Flat I’ll give a cup of tea to, but a son of Nellie Rogers can come any time he wants. Yes, any time you want.’

He climbed the zigzag track to the road and walked into Doris and Frank Lindsay. They lived across the creek near the mine-mouth, where there was a row of houses with their back to the hill, fronted by a tramline and stacks of silver-pine logs to be used as props in the mine.

page 67

‘What, do you know Ma Seldom?’ Frank asked.

‘Yes, I’ve known her for years. She was in hospital with Mum.’

‘She’s a funny old cuss, she is. I suppose she’s been telling you about Jack’s strike.’ And then Rogers realized that this was the first time he had visited her that she hadn’t talked about the strike, the first time she had talked only about Nora.

‘We’re going up to see Mum and Dad,’ Doris said. ‘Donnie came up to say Don’s home.’

‘Don is?’

‘Yes, he came on the five o’clock bus. And a new teacher too.’

‘He has an easy time, he does,’ Frank said.

‘Well, I’ll be glad to see him anyway,’ Doris said.

‘Well, he never settles anywhere. Off to Christchurch, got a good job, settled down, everything’s fine. Then the next thing you know he’s back again.’

‘It’s all very well for you to talk,’ Doris said. ‘You’re forgetting Don went to the war.’

‘I’m not forgetting, Doris. But the war’s been over nearly two years now. He’s had time enough to find his feet now, surely to Christ.’

‘Well, you’ve got to make allowances, Frank. And there’s not everything he can do with that arm of his.’

‘I know. I know. But it doesn’t stop him bending his elbow. Every time I see him he’s half-pissed.’

‘Well I don’t get up to see them much, and you’re not going to object if I go up when he’s home.’

‘I’m not objecting.’

‘I’ve never met Don,’ Rogers said. ‘I’ve seen his photo.’ He looked forward to meeting that frank-faced soldier who grinned easily from the mantelpiece in Palmers’ kitchen.

‘Well, that’s an excuse to get hooped up tonight.’ Doris was a vivacious girl; more like her father than her mother, she deliberately chose the bright side of things. Getting ‘hooped up’ for her didn’t mean getting drunk—she had at the most herself got a little tipsy and always with the family: it meant a family reunion.

‘Hooped up,’ Frank said. ‘There’ll be plenty of booze there without looking for it. You’ll get drunk enough without trying. I’ve got to start work at eight.’

‘Oh, Frank, don’t be such a wet blanket. This is an occasion.’

‘That’s all we ever do when we go up there. Drink booze and pay for it.’

‘Well they can’t give it away.’

page 68

‘No, but it’s not much of a set-up when every time you visit your relations it costs you.’

‘Well, we don’t have to drink.’

‘We’ll have to tonight.’

‘Are you just getting back for tea, Paul?’

‘I’ve had it. I had it at Mrs Seldom’s.’

‘Christ! You had tea at Ma Seldom’s. What did she give you?’ Frank asked.

‘I just had a cup of tea and biscuits. I wasn’t hungry.’

‘Well, I’ll be buggered. I’ve lived here myself for thirty years and I’ve never even set foot in her house.’

‘You’ll be ready to start drinking, then Paul.’

‘Well, not just yet. I want to call on the doctor first.’

‘The doctor? Is there anything wrong?’

‘He’s got boozer’s guts, that’s what it is,’ Frank said. ‘Too much of Palmers’ beer. Your sins’ll always find you out.’

‘No, I’ve got to call on him about one of the kids.’

‘That’s the parents’ worry, not yours,’ Doris said.

‘Oh, I just want to make some inquiries.’

‘What, playing the detective now,’ Frank said. ‘Of all the jobs a schoolmaster has to do. You’ll have your homework too when you get back. You’ll have to read up your lessons for tomorrow, so you’ll be a couple of pages ahead of the kids.’

‘He’ll be doing his homework in the bar tonight,’ Doris said.

‘I’ll see you in an hour or so.’