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



They sailed with the Third Reinforcement. Myra gave up the flat and went to Coal Flat to live with the Palmers. She didn’t take kindly to the Flat. She found the people coarse and uncivilized, the town without night-life. She felt herself stifled by the Palmers. Mum was always in the background; even if she said nothing Myra knew she was supervising her, watching how she fed the baby, listening to hear if it waked. The baby became a family property. Dad dandled it; Mum rocked it in her arms, huskily singing old-fashioned tunes Myra had never heard before. The girls made a fuss of it. The only thing Myra could look forward to was a letter from Don. Even then Mum wanted to know how he was, and she couldn’t refuse to show her the letter. It irritated her that Mum was so circumspect in asking for the letters, and always handed them back with a look that said, ‘Mum understands. When a boy marries, his mother can only expect to come second place in his heart. I won’t mention any of this to the others.’ She wouldn’t have minded so much if the family had taunted her about Don’s endearments, but it was too much to have them in the careful safe-keeping of a mother-in-law. Yet she made the best of it. She liked Dad and she could occasionally go to local dances with the girls. Mum encouraged her to go, saying they were for a patriotic cause and needed support, and a girl with her husband away needed some entertainment. Myra felt she was being nursed.

The main event in those five years was Doris’s wedding. Frank Lindsay was sullen and reserved, to Mrs Palmer’s way of thinking, but she encouraged him, genuinely this time since she still regretted how she had mismanaged Don and Jennie, and for a while congratulated herself that she had brought him out of his shell, for he responded to their laughter and the taunts of Dad and Myra, and became more talkative and frank than in his own home. ‘Oh, it’s the home that counts,’ Mum would say. ‘He hasn’t been used to much of a home.’ Yet she was all the time worried about Don—she had started going to church again because of him, dragging Dad along with her, though he hadn’t the imagination to take religion seriously page 97 —and she was, beneath her encouragement of Frank, bitter that he was safe at home in the mine, safe from the army working in an essential industry, while every day Don faced maiming and death. It was, as Dad said later, a deep-seated complaint, and Doris and Frank were aware of it, though she gave them no tangible clue that it existed. The wedding was a comparatively quiet affair, in deference to the war, to Don and to his mother’s contempt. Doris and Frank went to Benneydale in the King Country, where Frank got a job in the mine. Mrs Palmer was half relieved that they went.

Don went first to Ma’adi. He cabled once for money and sent home some tapestries and a tiny table with a design of inlaid pieces of wood badly bargained for from some shrewd Cairo merchant. Then he was in Greece and came whole out of Crete. Next they heard from Syria, and before they knew it he was in Alamein. Tom and Fred were killed on Crete, Bill had been wounded and was on a hospital ship coming home. Don survived without hint of injury till he was in Italy and there he was shot in the left arm. He arrived home early in 1944.

He was, of course, a changed man. He was four years older. He looked far tougher. His cheeks were more drawn, and his manner was more distant and commanding. Myra abandoned herself to their first awkward embrace, tears streaming, holding Donnie in her arms, a fair-headed boy of five. Don took his boy in his arms, and Mum was at him and he embraced her with Donnie in one hand. Then Dad who grinned self-consciously as they put arms on each other’s shoulders. Then Flora, and Doris, who had come down for the welcome. It was for all of them a tantalizing home-coming. Everyone wanted to speak to Don at once, but most of all Myra. She could not get him on her own. To Mum and Dad it did not matter so much, they were used to sharing affections in front of the family and they thought they had colonized Myra long ago. On the first night back they had beer in, and though there was plenty of it there, Don said at about nine that he’d just slip up the road for a minute.

Myra went to put on her hat and coat, but Mrs Palmer knowingly called her back.

‘He’s just going up to Jimmy Cairns’s,’ she said. ‘He must want a bit of fresh air.’

Myra didn’t drop to it. ‘I could do with a breather myself,’ she said.

‘Oh, I know these returned boys. Leave him be for a bit, Myra. He hasn’t found his feet yet. He just wants to have a few with the boys.’

page 98

‘I didn’t know he knew anyone here.’

‘Oh, there’s one or two other soldiers came back with him. And he met Jimmy on his final leave.’

Ten minutes later, Don looked in again. ‘Oh, why did you take off your uniform?’ Myra asked.

‘Glad to get out of it, pet,’ Don said. ‘These new slacks are like silk on my legs.’

Mum had bought them. ‘Is that the first time you’ve worn a tie since you went away?’ Myra asked.

‘Yep,’ he said, fingering it. ‘I haven’t thanked you for it yet. And the shirt.’ He kissed her, and saw the withheld tears.

‘What are you crying for?’

‘Nothing. I’m not crying. What’s wrong with you?’

‘I won’t be long, pet. Are you coming for a walk, Dad?’

‘No, I’ll stay here. Someone’s got to look after the old woman. Myra’s been cooped up all day.’

‘Cooped up?’ Doris said. ‘We all had a ride to Stillwater! Cooped up. You’ll he hooped up soon, Myra.’

They went together but Myra never forgot that he hadn’t asked her without prompting. Even in the bar he kept drifting away and joining a group of young men, two of them in uniform. Once he leant over the bar and got deep in conversation with Jimmy Cairns —Jimmy Cairns of all people, while she sat moping over a gin and lime. It was only when someone began to play the piano in the front room that she drew him away and the two of them, arm-in-arm, sang with the crowd, she with emphatic gaiety, but he as if she wasn’t there.