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



She never penetrated him after that. Before he had gone he had been just a simple, pleasure-loving good-looking boy, of an easy frank nature and of tremendous satisfaction in bed. Now when he possessed her she could feel the strangeness of him, a sort of spiritual fumbling, as if he hadn’t accustomed himself to the idea that she wasn’t some bint bought in the Birkeh, or an Italian mistress repaying him for rations. He kept half himself out of it. Awake and by day he took more notice of Donnie than of her, and Mum was more expert in divining his moods than she was. ‘It won’t be long,’ Myra thought. ‘We can go back to Dunedin. Or he can get a new job away from here, where we can be by ourselves.’

But he wasn’t sure that his arm would be strong enough for his page 99 old job, and he had said that Jimmy was looking for a barman. ‘A barman!’ she said. ‘You want to be something better than a barman!’

‘I’m no snob,’ he said. ‘I’ll see when I come out of hospital.’

He had to go to a convalescent hospital in North Canterbury for three months, to get something done to the bone. He would not promise to shift to another town. She could only argue in short spurts and quietly in their bedroom with the door closed. She felt she hadn’t had a chance to put her case to him. The morning he left she lay in bed all morning, dreading to face the family again without him. In an undertone, and only to Dad, Mrs Palmer said that evening, ‘She couldn’t even get up to see him off.’ Myra began to make bold plans. She would go to Wellington, start afresh in a strange city, she would find a job and a flat and have everything for when he was discharged from the sanatorium. He was just that type, she thought, who needed managing. If she made the decision he would follow her. How could he make up his mind here with his mother standing guard over him all the time? She wrote to Don saying she was feeling like a bit of a trip now that he was home; perhaps when he was well again they could have a holiday. However, she decided to leave on the following Thursday, and to write to him from Wellington. She broke it brightly at the meal table one evening.

‘I think I’ll have a bit of a holiday,’ she said.

‘Who are you running off with?’ Dad asked.

‘Oh, no one in particular,’ she said, glad at this turn of the conversation. ‘Just having a bit of a flutter.’

Mum looked serious. ‘Oh well, I suppose there’s a time comes when every girl wants to go back and see her mother.’

Myra lost her poise.

‘You haven’t seen your parents since Don went away,’ Flora said.

‘Why not wait till Don comes out? They’ll be dying to see him,’ Mum said.

‘Then you could take Donnie too,’ Dad said. ‘They won’t know him now.’

‘I was going to take him with me,’ Myra said.

‘Oh no, Myra,’ Mum said. ‘It wouldn’t be fair to the boy, taking him on a long trip like that just at this time of the year. He’s just got over his cold.’

‘I know,’ Myra said, straining to be bright still, and casual. ‘But he’s better now.’

‘You and Don can take him together, when Don comes out of the home,’ Flora said.

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‘That’s the best idea,’ Dad said.

‘Well, I reckon a little boy’s place is with his mother….’ Myra said.

‘That’s what I say,’ Mum said. ‘A mother’s place is with her children, And I reckon you ought to wait till Don comes out.’

Myra was winded by the turn of the conversation. They had agreed where she had expected opposition, and opposed where she had expected deference. She didn’t dare say she had intended to go to Wellington. Once it occurred to her that the best strategy would be to wait till Don came back and talk to him about shifting as soon as they were away from the Flat. But she had waited long enough. After her schemes of release the thought of another three months in this house made her unreasonable. A mean stubbornness gathered in her, and on the Wednesday night she announced as brightly as her obstinacy would allow that she was leaving next morning for that holiday.

‘I’ve got to have a break,’ she said. ‘All these years of worry. They tell on you once they’re over. Donnie, you’ll be good while I’m away, won’t you. Mum’s going away, pet, just for a while. She’ll be seeing you soon.’

‘Are you going away, Mum?’ Donnie asked. ‘Can I come with you?’

‘Oh, the poor little chap,’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘His mother going away and leaving him. It’s a shame isn’t it, pet? Never mind, Donnie; Gran and Granddad will look after you, won’t we Granddad?’

‘Mum, I want to come with you,’ Donnie said.

‘I won’t be away long,’ Myra said. ‘I’ll be coming back to you.’ She hadn’t meant to say this. In anticipation of future accusations, she had told herself she wouldn’t tell any lies. She hadn’t yet actually said that she was going to Dunedin.

‘Mummy’s going to see her mummy too,’ Flora said. ‘She wants to see her mummy now and again. Don’t you, Myra?’

‘Yes, pet. I’ve got a mummy too.’

‘Mummy’s going on a puff-puff to Dunedin and then she’s coming on another puff-puff to see you again,’ Dad said. ‘Aren’t you Myra? Running off with the engine driver.’

‘I want to see the puff-puff,’ Donnie said.

‘You’ll see it in the morning, pet,’ Mrs Palmer said, ‘when you go to see Mummy off.’

After the meal Mrs Palmer said: ‘Myra, what’s your address in Dunedin?’

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Myra told her her mother’s address, engaged in dim casuistry on whether or not she had yet told a lie.

At the train she cried as she kissed Donnie, and she said good-bye to Mrs Palmer and Flora with more intensity than was, to Mrs Palmer’s mind, warranted. That night she wrote to Don hinting at a mystery. ‘No doubt Myra has told you she was off to see her parents in Dunedin. I couldn’t see why she couldn’t have waited till you were out, and all three of you could go down together. Still, I suppose she knows her own mind best. I hope this doesn’t mean you’ll all be leaving us soon, son.’ Dad asked to see the letter and insisted on her altering it. ‘It’s not for us to make trouble,’ he said. Mum rewrote it: ‘We all thought it would have been better to wait and all three of you could have gone down together. Still, you can go down when you come out. Remember, son, you’re welcome to stay with us as long as you like. We are very attached to Donnie.’

Myra wrote Don from Wellington. She had a room, she had taken a job in the meantime as a waitress and she was looking for a flat. When he was ready to leave the hospital, she would come for him and they could go to the Coast to pick up Donnie and come back. ‘You know you might not be able to work with that arm, Don. I don’t mind working if my wages and your pension will be enough to keep us. I suppose you’re wondering why I did this. I just had to, Don. I think it’s time we started out on our own again and had a bit of privacy. Everyone was very kind to me at your place but I don’t want to feel dependent on them. I know you’ll understand.’

Don pondered the letter for a day and never replied. To him it was proof of what he had long and gradually come to suspect thinking about her in the army, that she was selfish and underhand. She hadn’t warned him that she was leaving home. She had told his parents she was going to Dunedin for a holiday. Her desertion gave Mrs Palmer the excuse both she and Don seemed to have been looking for. If anyone were to ask Mrs Palmer about Myra he would get the impression that Myra had left her husband. Myra came down the following Easter. Mrs Palmer faced her with accusing pity; it gratified her that Myra burst into tears when she hugged Donnie, that Donnie was embarrassed and (it seemed to Mrs Palmer) preferred her to his mother. Flora and Dad were polite and kind to her, but none of them made any reference to her going away, let alone a move towards reconciliation. Don stayed out at Jimmy Cairns’s pub all day. Myra asked Flora secretly if she would go and tell him she was home. ‘I think Dad slipped up and told him,’ Flora said.

‘Tell him I’d like to see him.’

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Flora said she was going for the bread and, calling Don to the door of the bar, she whispered Myra’s request. Don didn’t reply and went back to his beer. Myra never saw him again.

Since then he had lived an unsettled life. Jimmy Cairns was making no profit from his pub; he drank some of the profits and he gave too many drinks away. He sold out—and he had to borrow money to pay off debts before he sold—to the Palmers. Don’s arm was useless for any manual labour except the lightest; if he was to stay at home there was no work for him in the district; his parents made him barman. Every now and again he would leave home: this last time he had got a travelling salesman’s job in Christchurch. But he always came back.