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 119


What Peter Herlihy’s mind threw up surprised even Rogers. He decided it would be useless to try to teach this boy how to read while his mind was obsessed with other things and he concentrated on trying to bring to light all the fears and guilt buried in him. He knew he was treading risky ground, but if Mike Herlihy wouldn’t hear of a psychiatrist, someone had to do something for the boy. It wasn’t even practical to let him carry on without mental attention; he made it impossible to teach the other children. Now that Rogers had become so disheartened about political activity, his analysis of Peter became a mission with him. If Peter was away from school for a day, he found normal teaching tame. Daily he watched Peter’s progress as if it was the only part of his job that mattered.

He had at least persuaded Peter to give up the comics he read. He said he would tell him better stories. But they didn’t interest Peter, and Rogers was afraid that he still read comics at home, as in fact he did. One day he asked Peter to draw on a portable blackboard anything that came to his mind. But at first Peter said he couldn’t draw. Rogers persisted and finally Peter showed him a drawing that shocked Rogers, though he disguised his reaction. It was a stick figure of a man with an exaggerated phallus. Surmounting his resistance, with a satanic glint in his eye, Peter explained the picture. ‘Draw me more pictures,’ Rogers said. He was disturbed, but having decided to bring out the boy’s obsessions, he had to continue, and he had to expect something as unhealthy as this. He had at least won the boy’s confidence; that was something.

Peter Herlihy spent a whole feverish hour one afternoon wearing out sticks of red chalk on his blackboard, drawing his stick figures, rubbing them out and drawing more. They became a bait for him; he was finished his arithmetic before anyone else, he even began to learn his reading at home so that he would have more time at school to draw red stick figures.

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In a few days he had forgotten he wanted to draw them. He took to drawing more detailed pictures of men and women with fuller bodies and exaggerated pudenda in many weird postures conceived by a boy precocious but without understanding. Rogers himself was alarmed though he tried not to show it. What if Heath should walk in, or Belle Hansen? Peter’s graffiti began to erupt on the blackboards around the wall, though Rogers only allowed them a few minutes’ airing, trying to disguise his impatience to rub them off. Strangely enough, none of the other children noticed them. They were too young, Rogers thought, and each too much interested in his own drawing to be able to read another child’s; yet his misgivings became more serious. This sort of thing might be all right in a special school.

Within a few days Peter became more aggressive, but he still shrank from boys’ company, and in the playground he was, as he had been since he started school, the quarry of gang attacks, a sullen sneaking boy running and hiding from other boys.

Once he was called for by the dental nurse, who had a room by the mine office. He left school but, afraid of the pain, he did not go to the nurse, and satisfied himself throwing stones at a dog, catching it and trying to open its jaws as far as he could. If he had been stronger he might have broken its jaws but his hand slipped and the dog bit him. He did not go back to school that day, he had his revenge on a little girl on her way home from school. He threw stones at her till some bigger boys chased him, and he ran till he came to the billiard room where he furtively pushed open the door and shouted, ‘Bugger!’ and ran off, leering, though the few youths at billiards were only amused. Then he did the same at Palmers’ bar, but his father was there and he stopped with open mouth till his father came to the door and clouted him and told him to get off home and went back laughing, rather proud of the spirit his son showed, while Peter went home silent and subdued, wondering. As he approached the house his aggressiveness returned. He summoned his energy and banged open the back door and threw down his schoolbag. His mother jumped from the chair where she sat every afternoon before the coal stove, in an overheated kitchen, brooding on God knew what wrongs, like her mother on the other side of the town.

‘You rough little bugger,’ she screamed. ‘Can’t you learn to come into the house decently. Cut it out now, cut it out! You heard me, didn’t you? Cut it out!’

Peter stared insolently at her but only because he wanted something to eat. ‘I want a piece,’ he said.

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‘You pick up your schoolbag and put it in the corner where it belongs, or there won’t be any piece!’

He picked it up and threw it reluctantly to the corner.

‘Pick it up properly or by Christ I’ll thrash the living daylights out of you!’

He picked it up and put it down more gently.

‘Now say please before you get a piece!’


‘Please what?’

‘Please Mum.’ He added the word like a puritan forced to take an oath.

She went to a pantry where she kept well-cooked shortbread hidden from Mike and the boy. She never had two visitors in six months, yet it satisfied her pride to bake and to keep a full pantry as if she entertained frequently. She had a small appetite herself. She carefully replaced the lid on the cake tin. ‘You didn’t wipe your feet, Peter,’ she said, relenting, not wishing to bargain further with his hunger; though she never believed he was hungry when he came in from school; she was sure it was just perversity or boredom.

‘No,’ he said, non-committally. She held out the shortbread gently, tentatively, as to a pet dog. He snatched it like an animal and in a second was in the doorway, only his head showing. ‘I’m glad I didn’t wipe my feet,’ he said.

‘Oh, Peter,’ she said with unusual tenderness, as if wounded reproof would appeal to his conscience. ‘You didn’t say thank you.’

‘I’m not going to either,’ he said. ‘You’d be too scared to thrash the living daylights out of me. I’d tell Dad.’

She pitched into her fury again. ‘Get out, you brat!’ she screamed. ‘For Christ’s sake take yourself out of my sight and off my mind. Christ alone can tell why I ever had you, for I can’t!’

‘Maddie! Maddie!’ Peter taunted her from somewhere in the yard and retreated into the scrub with his shortbread like a cat with a sparrow.

Nora Herlihy took up her post by the open gate of the coal range, and for the tenth time that afternoon she swept the hearth, though there was only a crumb on it, from the shortbread. She had an urge to cry, but she was too proud to cry.

Peter was skulking under some stinkwood scrub, watching the road, tensing and silent when a car passed, or a dredge-hand biking home from work, feeling profoundly cunning to be watching unseen, like a predatory animal ambushed for prey. When he had page 122 eaten his shortbread he scouted deeper into the scrub and stalked imaginary animals, discovering new passages between the trunks and under the thick foliage which darkened the light. He knew these bushes and the ways through them, he knew their names: stinkwood, yellow beneath the bark, with the repulsive smell from the crushed leaves; tutu, its leaves and berries were supposed to be poisonous—some day he would try to coax his mother to eat some; fuchsia with its bark torn like peeling wallpaper—they said you could crush it and make cigarettes out of it—some day he might steal one of his father’s cigarette papers and try it; willows and the trees they called cracker, mickeymick, mockamock, whiteywood, birch; all the left-over second growth from the tangled forest of tall trees that had been here before Coal Flat and the older gold dredge. Peter often felt tempted to set fire to this scrub, but his mother always hid the matches from him since the time when he was five and tried to burn the lavatory down; and again, he wasn’t sure that he wanted to burn the scrub because it was his retreat. He was in his natural element here; there was all the difference between this alert, silent pathfinder scenting imaginary lions and Indians, darting and crouching suddenly behind trunks, slipping without a sound through tangles of supple-jack and bush-lawyer that would have baffled grown men; between this boy and the skulking runaway quarry of the gangs at school. Behind a mass of muhlenbeckia there was an empty space unexposed to any side. You entered it by lying flat and slithering through six inches of space at the bottom. Inside it was like late dusk. There was no noise except the passing riffle of tyres on shingle, and the trill of a grey warbler in the airy leaves above. In this pozzy, Peter kept his few treasures, a bike-pedal, a scout knife, a discarded and rusting ‘possum-trap, an exercise book and some chalk he had stolen from Rogers’s table, some coloured marbles, all taws. He had carefully built a cache of stones brought from the tailings, reinforced with leaves and dry fern, to protect them from rain, and he polished the knife every day. When Rogers first made his obsessions releasable he had stolen the chalk and the book so that he could draw pictures here, but after one attempt he lost interest; he only wanted to do that at school; already he had sensed that Rogers was embarrassed by them. Yet his retreats always followed a certain ritual. He would first check up on his possessions, he would clear away the leaves that had fallen since his last visit. Then he would sit and brood, calling his mother names; then he would fiercely whisper every swear-word he knew. When he first came back from the convent he had used to repeat in sneering mockery the words of the rosary, but the urge had left him now. page 123 Then he would drift into a still mood of nostalgia and self-pity. Finally he would dream that he was a lone woodsman living in a bungy hut deep in the bush, with a hurricane lamp for light, birds and eels and opossums for his food, and a rifle never out of reach. His hut would be well guarded against all intruders by traps planted like mines in strategic places, and he would shoot anyone that came near. It made him grin fiercely to think of someone caught in his trap, unable to walk away, too far away from a road to call for help, while he ignored the victim’s plight. Perhaps Mother St Ignatious from the convent would come, fat and gasping and tripping over roots, calling out in her sweet voice, looking for a lost girl who was lost because he had pushed her into the river, or Heath the headmaster, or Rogers—he thought twice about Rogers, but yet he’d gloat to see him helpless dancing with one foot imprisoned in a trap. Not his mother—she wouldn’t be alive to come near. A bus would have run her down, or the house caught on fire and burnt her up. And he would have an Alsatian trained to trust only him and attack anyone else. He would call it Caesar. And he would have two hurricane lamps and leave them burning all night because he didn’t trust the dark.

After half an hour’s reverie he checked again on his possessions and slipped from his den. He took an arc-like track through the scrub and came to the fowl-run. They had twenty fowls, including a dozen new pullets bought two months ago. He slipped silently into the run gently making clucking noises to calm the hens and deftly grabbed one, and holding her tightly, snibbed the gate and retired to the scrub. He had a thick piece of wire, which he pushed through the bird’s throat. He pierced it several times and twisted her neck, but prolonged the death as long as he could. He wrapped the wire round her neck and holding the other end of the wire, swung the bird round and round till she was dead. When she was no longer protesting he kicked her about the ground to soil the feathers, then returned her to the fowl-run. After tea, when it was half-dark, and his father was drunk and not listening to Nora’s insults he would slip out to the fowl-run and then run in excited as if he had made a fresh discovery, saying, ‘Dad! Dad! A ‘possum’s killed another of the hens! I chased it away!’ And his father, half-drunk, would follow him into the half-dark and look at it. He would pat his shoulder and say, ‘Good work, son’, For the fowl’s death would have earned him from his father a kiss, an amulet through a night of bickering knives.