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 83



Don palmer had never properly settled since his return from the war. Before he had volunteered for the army, life had taken a constant and self-evident direction. He had grown up in Central Otago, never far from the silent treacherous force of the Molyneux, playing among arid rocks, working in the summer holidays picking apricots and peaches at local farms. After school he would watch the gold dredge, where his father was winchman, sitting like a strange water animal in its pond, constantly foraging and devouring orange clay, constantly evacuating in neat barren rows its piles of gravel. He would stand on the bank and wave to his father who looked from the window of the winch-room. Sometimes his father would lower the gangway to the bank and he would run aboard, grinning at the men who were perhaps working on cables because there had been a breakdown, or with great guns, like cake-icers, were greasing the ladder which held the buckets. If the dredge was working he would run up the iron stairs, thrilling to see the men moving silently and expertly among the chattering machinery, the valves near the jigs quickly opening and closing, the water and sand flowing in channels beneath them; full of fear he would pass the rotating perforated barrel which separated the boulders from the fine soil, screaming so loudly that one could not speak above the noise. Once the men were on the barrel when the dredge was stopped, tightening its rivets, when without warning, it began to turn. They all jumped off except one, who was killed. Don’s father had been off sick that day, and another man had been winchman; they said it would never have happened if his father had been on the winch, he was so careful. Don could not pass this without imagining himself caught on the barrel, thrown to the edge and—he would never follow the thought, whether he would be crushed, or pulled out just in time. Up more stairs he would see his father, who would continue to work without more welcome than a grin. page 84 He would not leave the winch or turn his eyes from the window, but he would open his crib-tin and give Don one of the chocolate biscuits he always saved from his lunch. And Don would watch in wonder and fascination, these miraculous operations that depended on his father’s hand and brain, the orange cliffs around the pond, the deep clayey water on which the dredge floated, the two desolate miles of tailings behind it: like a huge wood-borer it carved its way ahead repudiating behind it its dunes of waste. Sometimes his father would tell him to go on home ahead of him, Mum would be getting worried, but sometimes he would let him wait and Don would watch him turn off the switches—or if the dredge was working a night-shift, hand over to another winchman—and walk off the dredge ahead of him carrying his crib-tin, proud to walk listening and unnoticed with the workmen, fascinated by this strange world of men who swore and called one another by their first names. Sometimes he and other boys would play at dredgemen, talking in stern mature tones, swearing if there was no one to hear them, making emergency decisions with curt commands.

They were a close happy family. It was seldom that he and Doris and Flora fought, and if they did they always made it up in genuine repentance. At the centre of their world was Mum, with her husky voice, her deep knowing face, her inexhaustible energy. There were few times Don could remember her punishing him—Dad left that to her—because somehow the occasion never arose when any of them deliberately defied her.

They were never conscious of a great gap of years between themselves and their parents. Mum and Dad at home seemed to have little interest outside it. They never read anything except the local paper and a couple of weeklies, Truth and the Auckland Weekly. Dad didn’t bother with a vegetable garden, though Mum had a few lettuces in the summer—they preferred to buy their vegetables. They occasionally listened to the new wireless set they had bought —one of the latest: it had a separate loudspeaker like an old-fashioned gramophone. But for the main part their life was concerned with themselves. After his dinner Dad used to romp on the floor with them; when they were smaller Mum used to give them aeroplane-rides, spinning them round like a merry-go-round till she was dizzy. Dad had funny names for them—Flora was ‘Dopy’, Doris was ‘Drip’, and Don was ‘Muttonhead’. They had their playmates, of course, but Mrs Palmer preferred them to bring the other children round to their place—she said it would train her children to be hospitable, and seeing that this was at the beginning of the slump, and wages were getting lower and there was page 85 some talk of the dredge closing down, the parents of their playmates did not object to their arrangement. Their home was the only kind of life the Palmer children knew: for them in those days their home in Dougalburn, near Cromwell, on a sidestream of the Clutha, was self-evidently good, sufficient, and eternally secure.

The dredge did not close down, though the only other one in Central did. It was a bit too early doing that. When Britain went off the gold standard the price of gold rose and goldmining was the only industry that thrived. Unemployed from the cities began to appear living in tents, prospecting along the rivers. The local people began to be suspicious of strangers on the roads. People sold any old watches and jewellery that contained gold. The men on the dredge kept their noses to the job because the management could easily replace them with men from the dredge that had closed down. Assured market or not, the men’s wages, in line with those of workers in other industries, were cut, and Dad’s along with them. He said at the time the country was going through hard times and he didn’t mind going without a little if it’d help the country through, so long as everyone else did his bit too. The Palmers now kept more closely to themselves, though Mrs Palmer let the children have other children home for an occasional meal. They dared not entertain neighbours who were out of a job because inevitably there would be jealousy that Dad still worked on a good wage, and she wanted to protect her children from malice.

It was at this time that Don was first made conscious of why his mother’s face was darker and deeper than those of other mothers. Once he was running cheerfully into the crisp clear sunlight of an early summer morning when he passed the wife of an unemployed lorry driver who had sometimes used to give him rides. This man was working for the month at a local orchard; after that he would trap rabbits but they fetched so small a price it wasn’t worth sending them to Dunedin, and his family had to cat them themselves. Don was full of expectant energy and called cheerfully to this woman, but she sneered over her gate: ‘Don’t you start cutting airs round here, you Maori beggar. Just ‘cause your old man’s a winchman.’ The bottom fell out of the morning and Don climbed slowly to the top of a hill of bare rock, and pondered all morning, so that he forgot about the sun and came home so burnt that Mum growled at him with unusual severity.

Dad tried to ease the situation.

‘You’ll be as black as a nigger, if you don’t watch out,’ he said.

‘We aren’t Maoris, are we Mum?’ Don said,

‘Who’s been telling you that, son?’

page 86

‘Mrs Thomson. She said I was a little Maori beggar.’

‘That puts Jack Thomson last on the list for when the dredge takes new men on,’ Dad said, ‘if I have any influence with the foreman.’

‘Just don’t pay any attention to her, son,’ Mum said. ‘I’m the one who has Maori in me. And I’m proud of it. We owned this country before all the Thomsons and pakehas.’

‘Here, go easy. You’ll be saying I’ve got no right to be here, soon,’ Dad said.

‘Well, we believe in live and let live. We held out an open hand of friendship, son; we said, we’ll share this land. It’s just some of them go back on their word. Don’t you speak to Mrs Thomson again, son. There are some people who just aren’t worth bothering about.’

‘Can’t I play with Jackie Thomson?’

‘Not now, son. Mum knows best, I was of royal blood. My grandmother’s father was a chief. I can be as superior as Mrs Thomson if I want to.’

Don grew up a youth of outstanding good looks, with leisurely waving jet-black hair, big dark easy eyes, and soft masculine features set in clear light-brown skin. The slump was over in his adolescence, and their differences with the other workmen were buried. There was plenty of work now, and there were six dredges in Otago. Don joined a local pipe-band and Mum spent fifteen pounds on his pipes and his costume. The family went to Dunedin to see him march at the pipers’ contest at the Caledonian grounds. Their band only got highly commended, but as Mum would say, ‘It’s not the prize that matters, son. It’s the spirit of the thing.’

He began to go to local Saturday night dances. He learnt to dance readily by watching the steps from among the crowd of young men who couldn’t dance or were too shy, who always stood occupying a third of the floor space near the door. His first love was Jennie Thomson. Mum, strangely enough, encouraged it, went out of her way to invite Jennie to meals, and by this strategy they tired of each other. It was the fullest and noblest experience Don had known. The home lost its attraction. He was a greaser on the dredge now; and at work his mind was with Jennie, with her auburn hair and shy ways. Of evenings they walked together, or went to the local pictures; on Saturdays they danced, leaving early so that they could stand for half an hour in tremulous rapture at her gate, because she had to be in by quarter past eleven, standing close, talking in murmurs, kissing with faint excitement and a wondering joy because neither of them could think of the other page 87 without surprise. Home won in the end. Jennie’s mother, worried that they might marry and produce a brood of throwbacks, sent her to Dunedin to work and though they wrote for a while, Jennie met other men and Don had already grown doubtful before she went because at home she showed up as wanting, clumsy in her little violations of the Palmer code. It was Don’s only virgin love.

After Jennie he felt he was a man of the world. He began to flirt with girls, taking a different one to her gate every Saturday night; at the gate he had none of the shyness he had known with Jennie. He looked back in an assumed blase manner at that affair and thought he had been wet and green. He kissed and embraced passionately no matter whom. ‘They’re all the same in the dark,’ he once found himself saying, though he didn’t altogether believe it. He found himself sought after at dances: once one girl ran to beat another to him in the ladies’ choice. And that night was to be a landmark in his memory: the first time he had known a girl. Behind the hawthorn hedge round the cemetery on the edge of the town. He faced his mother with slight guilt in the morning, and he looked at Flora in her virgin freshness and he thought, ‘By Jesus, if anyone ever did that to her, I’d kill him.’ But his face alternated between a shallow uneasiness and a deeper sensual complacency, a sense of having done everything a man can do, of being initiated; and it was not lost on his mother. As if about nothing or everything in general, she said, with her back to him, washing the breakfast dishes: ‘Just take it easy, son. Don’t let it go to your head. Now for God’s sake be careful.’

He grunted, pretending not to understand.

‘There’s plenty more fish in the sea, son,’ she said, trusting herself now to turn and face him. ‘Jennie’s not the only one.’

‘I’m not worrying about her, Mum.’

‘You’ve got sheilahs on your mind, son. Mum knows. It’s only natural. But just go easy. I don’t mind you having a good time. Only be careful.’

‘Me. I’m always careful.’

‘I’m serious, Don. We don’t want any forced marriages. And for God’s sake don’t let on to Dad what you did last night.’

‘You know everything,’ he said resentfully.

‘That’s right, son. Mum knows.’ She took it as flattery.

Don went outside and for the first time since he was a boy he turned over the back garden with the spade that hadn’t been used since Mum dug a patch for lettuces the summer before.

Mum saw to it that Dad got more beer in the house. She encouraged Don to drink at home. Flora wouldn’t touch it, and Doris page 88 only drank shandies. ‘What I always say is,’ Mum would say, ‘if you make it shameful they’ll only go away and do it behind your backs.’ It was a strange sensation for Don to be unashamedly tipsy in his own home, because already he had been away in a friend’s car on Saturday nights, the two of them with two girls, to an isolated pub ten miles away where they served you after hours. And already his features had lost the expectant nobility of a year ago, a promise of ripening manhood, the looks that made him so fresh, with alert virgin eyes, when he had been in love with Jennie. His lips twisted, prehensile to cigarettes and women’s lips; his eyes began to burrow for the response to their invitation; his checks formerly expectant and alive, became complacent and dead. In spite of Mum and the beer on the kitchen table he began to range farther afield. There was hardly an attractive girl in any town within fifty miles that he didn’t know by name or repute. He and two mates began to take a rental car to Dunedin for a week-end every month. He lost interest in the pipe-band: his pipes he sold, keeping the money himself; and his costume, which was getting too small, Mum put away under mothballs.

Dad put his foot down once when Don was fined on a charge of drunken driving. He wouldn’t allow Don to drive to Dunedin any more; he said he would have to use the bus. Only Mum said that would make Don look small before his mates and Dad agreed that he could ride in the back seat of the car. ‘If there’s any more trouble, I’ll put a stop to you going to Dunedin altogether,’ Dad said. He would have done then, only he knew it would have meant convincing Mum it was necessary. He regretted later that he hadn’t because Mum said one Monday night, after Don had been away that week-end:

‘Dad, Don wants a word with you.’

‘What about?’

‘He wants to get married.’

‘Married? Gawd, what’s wrong with him—are you serious, Lil? Jesus Christ, he’s only a kid.’

‘He wouldn’t say it if he didn’t mean it.’

‘Who’s the girl?’

‘Some Dunedin girl.’

‘Why didn’t he tell me?’

‘That’s what he wants to see you about now.’

‘Can’t he ask me without doing it through you? I haven’t grown away from him that much, have I?’

‘Well, at that age, Dad, a boy always turns to his mother for advice.’

page 89

‘Well, he’s going to have this thing out with me, Lil.’

Mrs Palmer went out of the room when Don came in.

‘What’s all this your mother tells me, Don?’

‘I want to get married Dad.’ He swallowed a little uncomfortably.

‘What do you want to get married at your age for?’

Don was uneasy, ‘I think she’s the right girl for me, Dad.’

Dad blew. ‘You don’t get married just like that, son. What are you going to live on? What sort of a family does she come from? What do her parents think about it? That’s just some of the things I want to know.’

Nor did Don reassure his father. She was a girl from St Kilda, from a small wooden house on the flat, on a tram route. Her father was a tramway motorman; they didn’t have a lot of money because he had only been working three years since the slump, when he had spent most of his life’s savings. She was just twenty-one.

‘There you are,’ Mr Palmer said. ‘She’s older than you.’

‘Only a year.’

‘Well, it’s the principle. A man should marry a woman younger than himself.’

She worked in the Golden Grill as a waitress, and Don had met her there one night as they went in to have a feed of oysters and chips after the Town Hall dance. Cheeky with beer he had asked could he meet her on her day off. Surprisingly she seemed to jump at the chance, and since then he had met her every time he came to Dunedin; and, as she had managed to change her night off with another waitress, they went to the Town Hall dance together, and later to other dance halls which were not so staid. She was dark and plump with a pampered and rather pasty face. Don’s mates wouldn’t have looked twice at her, but she had a baby-like manner which appealed strongly to him. He had no doubt that she had known other men, but that didn’t seem important to him. Wages were better now in 1938, and he had more money to spend, and most of it he saved for his week-ends with her. Mum often helped him out with a loan, though he seldom paid her back. He had met her parents only once. They didn’t take much notice of him, he was just another of her boy friends. It surprised him that a family could be like hers; she was never at home but she was itching to be out of it. She boasted of deceiving her parents; most of her remarks about her kid sister were catty. He pitied her, and thought she needed rescuing from such a home. Now when he went to Dunedin his mates didn’t see him after they let him out of the car at the Oval where he took a taxi to her place. They were resentful that their good-time comradeship was breaking up. They wondered when he page 90 would get tired of her, but he didn’t. She was obviously proud to have him at her arm. Myra was her name, and she dressed fussily and in poor taste got from women’s fashion weeklies. She had a new hair style almost every time he saw her. She used make-up generously, and she smoked from a holder. ‘She’s got a classy style,’ Don would say; but his mates didn’t comment after a few routine taunts like, ‘You’ve got it bad this time, Don’.

‘How do you know you can afford to get married?’ Dad said.

‘Well, there’s my post office savings.’

‘We paid that, son. You’re not to touch that till you’re twenty-one.’

‘Well, I suppose we can live on my wage.’

‘You don’t realize, son, what a responsibility you’re taking on. You’ve got to buy a hose and a section. You’ve got to be able to provide for her and for your children. You can’t do that on love.’

He went to the door and called, ‘Lil!’

Mrs Palmer came in. ‘I’m against it,’ Dad said. ‘You haven’t even convinced me you really want to marry the girl,’ he said. ‘You’ve hardly mentioned her.’

‘Here, son, tell Mum,’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘Do you want to leave us for her? That’s what you’ve got to face up to, whether she’s worth leaving home for. Do you love her?’

Dad made an embarrassed noise and went out into the clear night air under the stars.

Don squirmed. ‘I like her, Mum. She attracts me. I want to be with her. I’m always thinking of what we’ll do next time. I’d like her to be my wife.’

‘Is it like when you were with Jennie?’

Don sneered. ‘That was calf-love.’

‘Well, I don’t reckon you really like this girl, whoever she is. I reckon it’s just her body you want. There’s plenty more fish in the sea, son. Can’t you wait a while? From what you say I don’t reckon she’s good enough for you. There’s a dozen girls in this town would be glad to have you. You’ll soon get sick of her body, son. You can’t spend all your time in bed.’

Don could not face such talk from his mother. He went to the door and found Dad. The air was sharp, and the stars were crisp and frail like frost patterns. The silence in the valley was active, almost audible. A faraway car murmured in a desert gully, and its lights occasionally searched the darkness over hills a long way off.

‘There’s something I’ve got to tell you, Dad,’ he said. The darkness gave him quiet courage. ‘I’ve got to marry her. She’s in the family way.’

page 91

He felt a blow and staggered on to the leafless rosebush by the gate.

‘You deserve a bloody hiding,’ his father said quietly. ‘At your age. I never thought a son of mine…. This generation…. Get up, or I’ll give you another. Come inside.’

Inside Dad told Mum to leave them alone and he started again to punish Don. He punched him in the chest several times and thumped his shoulder. Don made no attempt to oppose him. It was the first time in ten years his father had struck him.

‘It doesn’t do any good, Dad,’ he said. ‘You know I won’t hit you back…. It doesn’t get rid of the baby.’

Dad sat down by the kitchen range and said: ‘How far gone is she?’

‘Two months.’

‘That’s not so bad then.’

He looked up at Don with a cheated look, bare of all sentiment, and Don returned the look, equally stripped: two naked selves opposed. ‘It ’s a pity I didn’t put a stop to your Dunedin excursions altogether. It was only that your mother wouldn’t have it.’

‘It’s my fault. Don’t blame Mum.’

‘I was ready to let you go drinking and dancing. I thought you were a decent clean-living lad.’

‘Don’t rub it in, Dad.’

‘Christ Almighty, it needs rubbing in. It’s a pity we didn’t rub it in earlier. You might have been a decent boy still.’

They sat in silence for a few minutes.

‘Well, your mother’ll have to know.’

‘Oh, son,’ Mrs Palmer said when she knew. ‘Oh, Don. As if I didn’t warn you.’

‘Is she the first girl you’ve done it to?’ Dad asked.


‘How long has this been going on?’

‘About a year.’

‘Did your mother know?’

Mrs Palmer looked tense with her big powerful eyes. Don did not look at her.

‘Yes. She knew.’

‘Well, you get to bed. We’ll talk of this in the morning. Go in and tell the girls to go to bed.’

When Don had gone, he gave his wife the only thumping she was ever to have from him. She took it submissively and making no noise except gasps because she didn’t want the girls to know. She collapsed and cried, not out of subterfuge but out of exhaustion; page 92 and she preceded him to bed. She felt cheated. It wasn’t the beating she objected to, but that Don should have given away their secret. Dad didn’t come to bed till one in the morning.

At first Dad wanted to turn Don out of home. ‘It’d be a lesson to him. He’s always had everything he wanted. We’ve spoilt him. The girls have never abused us like this. It’d be a lesson for him to make him stand on his own feet.’ But Mum dissuaded him on the grounds that it would mean telling the girls, and that the neighbours would get to know of it. ‘Mrs Thomson’d scent it a mile away…. Wouldn’t she be laughing at us?’

‘Bugger Mrs Thomson. It’s the girls I’m worrying about. But I’m warning you. No encouraging them to kick over the traces, now.’

The girls were never told that the marriage was forced. Their eager excitement helped to offset for the Palmer parents the grimness of pushing through with the plans. Mrs Palmer wasn’t impressed with Myra. ‘Jennie was worth two of her,’ she thought. There was little mutual attraction between Myra’s parents and Don’s. Myra only had her glory-box and thirty pounds in the post office; her parents said it was all they could do to pay for the wedding-breakfast, but they were pleased to have Myra off their hands with a man whose parents had a bit more than thirty pounds in the bank. The Palmer girls welcomed Myra eagerly, and she was rather flattered; she tended to exploit their goodwill and boss them about, but Mrs Palmer put a stop to that with one or two of her well-placed words. On the whole Myra did well out of the arrangement, and at the back of her mind she congratulated herself on having done what Mrs Palmer had suspected from the moment she met her, on having manipulated Don into fatherhood, to make sure of him. It was a humiliating blow to Mrs Palmer that after all her warnings, it had been Don himself who had been seduced.

The wedding was in the Anglican Cathedral. Myra’s people were Methodist and would have been happy to have the wedding in their local church, though they never worshipped at it. But Mum insisted that she take Don’s denomination, and that they marry in the biggest Anglican church in town. She would have insisted too on a reception at the most expensive hotel, offering to pay half if Myra’s people couldn’t afford it, but the management of the Grill offered to have the reception there, at a reduction, seeing Myra had worked there five years; they were just entering the wedding reception business and it would be a good advertisement; and the idea appealed to Mrs Palmer. Myra’s people and the Palmer girls got the most enjoyment out of it. Myra’s father and page 93 brother got coarsely drunk, her mother cackled rustily on three port wine and brandies; and Mrs Palmer felt strengthened in her majestic respectability by these waves of vulgar hilarity. Her husband relaxed for the first time since Don broke the news on them; he grew mellow as she encouraged him to drink because she knew he could take his drink and not forget to be a gentleman. Don looked well too, and for all that his mother said of his not being in love with Myra, he was obviously proud of her. He beamed at them all, in this moment of his pride, and in that beam the worst of his parents’ resentments dissolved. Irritated by the glint of triumph in Myra’s eyes, Mrs Palmer consoled herself that Don would soon learn to subdue her.

They had hired a taxi from Dougalburn at quite an expense. After they had seen the last of Don, frustatingly [sic: frustratingly] incommunicado under confetti in his happiness and everyone’s attention, they drove, sherry-sentimental and wet-eyed, through the workaday streets out through Caversham and back to Central Otago. Dad called at Henley for a round of drinks and they sat in the hotel lounge, Mum tired over a sherry, the girls excited over raspberry drinks, Dad easier and reconciled.

‘Well, it hasn’t worked out so bad,’ he said.

‘Dad! What’s wrong with you?’ Doris said. ‘Flor, listen to him! “It hasn’t worked out so bad!” Don got married. You should be happy.’

‘Yes!’ Flora said.

Mum said, ‘Let’s get back to the car,’ and rose quickly, her glass half full. In the car she gave in to a quiet fit of tears. ‘Twenty years we’ve seen that boy every day of his life. Now we won’t see him except on odd visits. I’m dreading going in to find his bed empty in the morning.’

Dad applied for a foreman’s job on one of the new dredges starting on the West Coast, and within three months they had moved to Coal Flat.


Dad had used his influence with an engineering firm in Dunedin to get Don a job at their foundry. Myra went back to work temporarily at the Grill, sporting her wedding ring. They had a flat in a drab street near Logan Park. Their married life was better than anyone knowing them might have predicted. Dad had given Don his £500 post office savings-bank account and he was looking for a page 94 house, hoping to pay it off as he earned. In the meantime they lived, only seeing each other at evenings and at breakfast, more austerely than they had been used to. Don cut out drinking, and would have knocked off smoking, but that was something Myra couldn’t do, and he had to buy cigarettes so that she could borrow them when she had none. They went dancing on Saturdays. She said she couldn’t stay home every night. ‘It’s just as well I’m still working,’ she said. ‘I’d go mad if I had to stay home all day by myself. I can’t knit or sew or anything like that.’ For a start she couldn’t cook, but she had seen enough of her mother’s cooking and the cooking at the Grill, to pick it up; she was quick to learn, though it was never a work of love. Domesticity bored her. She would have liked a night-club life, like what she saw in films, but she was a practical girl, and since she couldn’t afford to do anything else, she reconciled herself to housework. Don was attentive to her. He would have liked to bring her presents on his way home. If he passed a shop window with an unusual scarf or hairbrush, he would return on pay-day and buy it for her. He never tired of her chubby selfish face and he loved her in an undramatic way, even when the mixture of lust and romance with which he approached their hired marriage-bed had worn off. But for her his glamour wore off. She had to remind herself of his surprising handsomeness to be aware of her good luck. It was when they were out together, at a dance or in a restaurant, that she was proud of him, when she saw the other men with their plain and ugly faces, when she caught the envious glances of other women. But at home his good looks didn’t seem to matter so much, and you couldn’t think about his looks in bed. But she was a girl who looked for the simplest way out, and she resigned herself to putting in her life with him.

A few months later Donnie was born. Don was now anchored in his marriage. He was proud taking flowers to the maternity home, and for the first time since Jennie Thomson, filled with excited wonder at his own power when he stared at the little live being of his own breeding. For the first time he was aware of the consequences of the act he had sought with such grim devotion, performed so glibly, for a year before he was married. Mum and Dad were evidently proud too. They had forgotten their old anger when they came down from the West Coast. ‘It’s just what my life was wanting,’ Mum said.

‘Here, what about me? I had a hand in this too,’ Dad said.

‘Granddad,’ she said.

‘You’re a bloody old grannie,’ he said, ‘and you’re only forty-five.’ The baby gave Myra an advantage over Don in the house. She page 95 saw his concern for the boy, and she kept him away from him on the pretext that men were helpless with babies. Don became attentive, domestic and subdued. Myra didn’t pine for her Saturday night dances now. She was content to stay home; of evenings they listened to the serials and advertisements on 4ZB, and this saved them the trouble of striking deeper common ground in talking. Often Don missed this way of knowing her; it was as if he had started to know her the wrong way round. But they met over the baby.

Donnie was only a few months old when the war started. For three months the possibility of volunteering lay at the back of Don’s mind. He didn’t want to give up his home, yet he was a little afraid already of his domesticity, and he felt that Myra was not settled either, the way she went to her mother’s twice a week with the baby, leaving him to get his own dinner. He began to wish for the company of Fred, Tom and Bill, the three mates he used to drive to Dunedin with. One Saturday afternoon he ran into them at the Ranfurly Shield match at Caversham. After the match they went to a crowded bar and he stayed till closing time with them, and didn’t go home for dinner, but continued to drink after hours at another pub in Princes Street near the tram sheds. Two of the boys were going to join up. They wanted him to come with them. ‘If you don’t go now, you’ll have to later,’ one of them said. ‘There’ll be conscription soon. You might as well be with your cobbers.’ Don kept the thought to himself. When he got home Myra chipped him about staying out spending money; she insisted on the following Saturday that it was her turn to go out, and she went to a dance, leaving him to mind the baby. His twenty-first birthday was in November, and Mum and the girls came down for it; Dad said he couldn’t take time off. Mum asked him had he thought of joining up. She agreed it would be hard on Myra and the baby, but she said she’d be proud if a son of hers answered the call of king and country. ‘The baby will never want for a home,’ she said. ‘Not while Dad and I and the girls are alive.’ Fred, Tom and Bill were down from Cromwell and were already pretty tight; Don went to them and broached the topic, and on the spot the four of them made a boozy compact to enlist after the New Year. By now Don had already mentioned it to Myra, who strangely didn’t object. Her mind began to foresee a new source of esteem, having a husband overseas with the army. Don announced the decision quietly in his speech after Mum had presented him with a wristlet-watch. There were cheers and Mum led the company singing, ‘There’ll always be an England’, ‘We’re Going to Hang Out Our Washing on the Siegfried Line’, ‘Boys of the Bulldog Breed’, and ‘God Save the King’.

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The four went into camp in January. The train was full of loud excited young men, kissing their girls and their wives on the platform, shouting, swigging beer from bottles to the connivance of a railway guard powerless to stop them, singing aggressively and playing cards.


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.’

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‘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.


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.