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

2

2

Peter Herlihy brought some luridly coloured comics to school. They were published in Australia, but the spelling of the words in the balloons suggested they might have been drawn in America. Rogers asked Peter if he could borrow them because he wanted to know what Peter was reading. Not that he could read the words; he stared at the pictures and built his own interpretation out of them. Rogers was horrified when he studied them. There were close-ups of a rope tightening round the neck of a hanging man, of the neck of a criminal being strangled; in every second panel a button-nosed man with a small head and unnaturally thick neck (reminding one of the extinct saurians with their thick necks and peanut-sized brains) was brandishing a gun or launching out with a fist like a ham. There was a story of a jungle girl, a ferocious young woman with a Hollywood hair-do, who wore a leopard-skin and swung from tree to tree, and owned a troop of pygmy slaves around whom periodically she capriciously wrapped a long whip.

‘Why do you read these?’ he said to Peter.

‘Cause they’re good. They’re exciting.’

page 105

‘If you’d learn to read properly you could read better books.’

‘I don’t want to read better books. These are best.’

‘How do you feel when you read them”’

Peter hedged and under a fanatic grin Rogers could see him jealously guarding some personal secret. He knew he would never get this out of him.

‘These books are bad for you, Peter. They’re cruel, they’re nasty. It’s not right to hurt people like this jungle girl does-why does she whip those little men?’

‘’Cause they’re mad. It serves them right.’

‘Why? What have they done?’

‘They tried to steal something from her.’ He was making this up.

‘What did they try to steal?’

‘They wanted that skin she was wearing.’

‘Why?’

‘So they could whip her—and then the skin wouldn’t keep the whip off.’

‘Oh, Peter’ he said incredulously.

‘She’s not really a girl though. It’s a man dressed up. A girl couldn’t be boss like that.’

‘Let me keep these comics, Peter. You don’t want them.’

Peter clutched them. ‘No,’ he said retreating into his impenetrable defence. He went back to his seat. Later when he thought Rogers wasn’t looking he studied the jungle girl again. He came excitedly to the table and said, ‘I know this story now.’

‘What is it?’ Rogers said.

‘It is a lady. She’s their mother and they hate her. But they’re all gonna get together when she’s not looking and take the whip off her and then they’ll kill her. It’ll serve her right.’

It was obvious that, vicious as the comics were, he was reading far more into them than was there. The boy was a case for a psychiatrist. But where would you find a psychiatrist this side of the Alps?—unless there was one at the mental hospital at Hokitika; if there was, would he be any good? Rogers was afraid to meddle with Peter’s mind. Yet he had to do something. It was impossible to keep the boy in his seat for long. Take your eyes off him and he’d be torturing some little girl or carving on the desk with a knife. Rogers searched him every morning now and took the knife from him in case he hurt someone with it. In another school his responsibility would have ended if he’d told the headmaster, but Rogers had no faith in Heath to deal with this. He resolved to call on the boy’s father. He remembered Mike Herlihy’s appeal for his support, the first day he was back, and hoped Herlihy might listen to page 106 him. It would be no place to discuss it in the bar. So that night he slipped down the track from the terrace to Mike’s little house on the flat. He didn’t want to meet Nora, since he was a friend of her mother’s, so he didn’t knock at the door. He hung around on the road hoping to see Mike in the garden—only there was no garden. But Mike was there pottering in the fowl-run. Rogers strolled over appearing casual.

‘Oh, Mr Herlihy….’ he said.

Mike straightened and looked at him in the half-light of dusk, then bent down again to inspect the contents of the grit-pot.

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘What d’you want?’

‘I came down about your boy,’ he said.

‘What about him?’

‘He’s not a happy child,’ Rogers said. ‘He’s got something on his mind.’

Herlihy stood up, put his knuckles on his hips, and stared, saying nothing.

‘Well, I thought you ought to know, I reckon he needs treatment from a psychiatrist.’

‘Psychiatrist!’ Herlihy said and stared at him. ‘Holy Jesus! What next?’

‘He’s in a bad way mentally. There might be one at Hokitika.’

‘Are you trying to tell me my boy’s mad?’

‘No, not mad. But his mind’s not healthy. It needs treatment of some kind.’

Herlihy stood, getting his words in order. ‘Look here, young fullah,’ he said. ‘You want to go back to school yourself for a bit instead of trying to teach at one. Psychiatrist—in the name of Christ and all the saints!—What good, in the name of God Almighty, could a psychiatrist do for a boy? A man who’s probably as bad a sinner and as confused in his mind as any living soul. Have you never heard of the Devil, young fullah? That’s all that’s wrong with my boy now and again.’

‘That’s ridiculous.’

‘And not only my boy either. Some people entertain the Devil inside of them without ever knowing it. Nursing a snake in their own nest. Yes. And my boy’s no worse than any other boys, especially some of the scions of atheism of this’—he searched for another ironic phrase and proudly said—‘this citadel of iniquity and godlessness.’

‘Mr Herlihy,’ Rogers said, ‘I’m not starting any argument on religion. Your boy’s in a bad way and he needs treatment, and you’re the only one who can see that he gets it.’

page 107

‘And I’ll oppose it,’ Herlihy said. ‘A lot of bloody rot. The boy gets up to mischief and you tell me he’s mad. You haven’t even told me what he’s done.’

‘I didn’t say he was mad.’ Rogers didn’t tell him about Peter tormenting the girls; he didn’t know that he might not give him a thrashing. ‘It’s not what he does. It’s his whole attitude. He’s afraid of something, obsessed.’

‘So you’re telling me I don’t know how to bring him up, is that it?’ Herlihy said. He was getting angry.

‘Call it the Devil or what you like,’ Rogers said. ‘You haven’t been able to exorcise him. A trained mental specialist might.’

Herlihy said nothing for half a minute. Then: ‘I don’t believe you. I can’t see anything wrong with him, only a bit of mischief. You don’t know much about kids. You’ve never had any of your own. What’s he done? Tell me that!’

‘He’s a nuisance in the class; won’t sit still; won’t settle.’

Herlihy’s angry reply was like a sigh of relief. ‘Well, young fullah, if you can’t do your job properly and keep a couple of dozen kids in their places, there’s no need to come complaining to me. Blame yourself if you can’t do the job, don’t throw the blame on the children and call in a psychiatrist and Christ knows what.’

Rogers gave up. ‘Well, I’ve warned you. ‘That boy’ll turn out to be a delinquent. Don’t blame me if he ever ends up in a Borstal.’

Herlihy snorted with disbelief.

‘Well, there’s one thing you could do,’ Rogers said. ‘Cut out those filthy comics he reads.’

‘I read them meself,’ Mike said. ‘What’s wrong with them?’

‘They’re sadistic and cruel and vulgar. They’re evil. Surely you can see that.’

‘Then they’re not far wrong either. They don’t give a false glamour and—er, deceptive nobility to the nature of man. No, they depict man in his natural graceless condition’—his voice was rolling as if he fancied himself delivering a sermon—‘in the condition he was born to, as to a heritage, suffering and wickedness and servitude.’

‘Oh God,’ Rogers said.

‘Oh God indeed,’ Herlihy said. ‘Many an unbeliever like yourself has spoken the truth without knowing it.’

The chance to roll off these phrases seemed to have put Mike in a better mood. He clapped Rogers on the shoulder. ‘Psychiatrists and comics, indeed. Just go away and ponder on the condition of man, young fullah, and you’ll change your tune.

Rogers wanted to stay and argue even if he infuriated the man page 108 so that he might talk some sense. But the door opened and a woman’s voice screeched: ‘Mike! Who’s that out there? Mike, where’s that brat now? He should be in bed!’

Rogers walked away, and Mike called after him, ‘Drop down again and have a yarn. ‘There’s not many people in this town an educated man can talk to. Even if you do talk nonsense.’

Mike didn’t answer Nora, and Rogers didn’t answer Mike.