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 138


Miss Dane was printing sentences on the wall blackboards in readiness for the morning when Mrs Hansen swept into the room.

‘I caught you,’ she said. ‘Doing overtime. Scabbing on the union.’

‘I was just thinking of those extra minutes I can have in bed in the morning,’ Miss Dane said.

‘You want to do all this in school time. I always do. Come up home for a cuppa?’

‘I really should finish this first, Mrs Hansen.’

Belle. Here, give us some chalk. I’ll help you.’ Quickly and confidently she chalked sentences at the rate of two to Miss Dane’s one, and Miss Dane, not satisfied with her printing, wondered if she should come early the next day to print them again.

‘Truey’s been picking on Fred Lawson today too. He hasn’t been near me. He knows better.’

‘I must say he doesn’t treat me too badly.’

‘You’ll see.’ She put her head through the sliding wall into Rogers’s room. ‘Come up for a cuppa, Paul?’

‘I don’t think I ought to. The Palmers will be waiting to find out what happened to Donnie.’

‘I want to hear the rest about your barney with Truey.’

They walked down the road through a fine drizzle. Only the bottom of the hills showed through mist. Across the Grey Valley the ranges were lost in another bank of mist. Rogers recounted more of his argument with Heath while fine drops of mist settled on his hair and his overcoat, making it look shaggy with white bristles. Miss Dane didn’t say much.

‘I’m dying to know what’ll happen,’ Mrs Hansen said. ‘Gran against Truey. It’s not an even match.’

‘I do think she spoils that child,’ Miss Dane said. Rogers left them at the corner and headed straight home to the hotel.

Bounce raced up and leaped at Mrs Hansen and almost unbalanced Miss Dane. ‘Here, you’re too full of energy and the butcher’s best meat,’ she said. ‘You’ve been lying down all day. Not like us overworked teachers.’

Bounce kept leaping, dragging his wet paws down the front of her raincoat. ‘Go away,’ she said, ‘or I’ll tell your teacher. What’s your teacher’s name?’

page 139

‘He has private tuition,’ Mrs Hansen said. ‘I’m his governess, aren’t I, Bounce.’ She put her arms round his neck and nuzzled his jaw.

She let Miss Dane into the house and ran down to the fowl-house to pick up the eggs. ‘Three eggs for Belle and Jack!’ she whooped as she switched on an electric kettle. She had a kitchenette full of labour-saving devices that she had seen and admired in overseas women’s magazines. In the dining-room she flung her bag on to the table, pushing aside what was already there—a bag of oranges, some Fireside Library books from Greymouth, some sewing and some frock patterns of tissue paper. She opened tins and filled plates with bought biscuits and cakes. ‘About time I did some housework,’ she said. ‘No time for that and teaching too.’ When they were drinking tea Miss Dane said:

‘Sometimes I don’t think it’s right the way we talk of Mr Heath.’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, seriously, he is the headmaster. He is trying to do his best.’

‘To do his best for himself. You should have heard Sue Johnson on him. The way he was always on that girl’s tail just because she was a probationer and couldn’t fight back.’

‘But probationers shouldn’t want to fight back, should they?’

‘Or Fred Lawson. The hours he put in getting that art work out of his class, and then for Truey to show it to the inspector and make out it was his own work. It nearly broke Fred’s heart.’

‘Well, of course I don’t approve of that. But I think we should be prepared to co-operate. The children know we don’t like him.’


‘Yes. I went into Mr Rogers’s room this morning. There was a terrible noise, and Peter Herlihy had the nerve to say Mr Heath was giving Mr Rogers the strap.’

‘He’d like to have, too. Course young Herlihy’s a different matter.’

‘Mr Rogers isn’t severe enough with him.’

‘If I was Paul I’d thrash him. Instead of setting boys on to him, like at lunch-time today.’ She gave an account of the fight.

‘Really, I can’t understand it. And then this Donnie Palmer case. I don’t think Mr Heath need have been quite so hard on Donnie, but if Mr Rogers can’t keep discipline then Mr Heath has to step in, and we shouldn’t object. He is the headmaster.’

‘I only hope those kids know some manners by the time I get them. First lesson for Standard I next February: Forget that you were ever in Mr Rogers’s room. Second lesson: Learn to do as I tell you.’

page 140

‘You see I’m afraid Mrs Palmer is determined to go on with it. She’s threatening to take it to the Committee. I don’t think we should let Mr Heath down.’

‘Well, I’m not taking sides. I don’t like Paul’s tripe about freedom and psychology and all that. But I like Truey a whale of a lot less.’

‘It’s unfortunate about that child. The child isn’t to blame. It’s not right for a child to grow up in a hotel. And the father doesn’t give him the discipline he needs.’

‘Don’t you like Don? I think he’s a nice type. A bit of Mum’s boy, I’ll admit. But Gran’s a good old stick. I like the Palmers, Maori blood and all.’

‘A child of a broken marriage. What else can you expect? The father hasn’t any sense of responsibility.’ She became passionate. ‘He’s a proper heathen.’

‘Well, aren’t we all?’ Mrs Hansen said with a shrug. ‘I’m no Bible-banger. My mother rammed it into me enough to last me a lifetime.’

‘Yes, but you wouldn’t call yourself an atheist?’

‘Me? I go to church now and again, just to pay my respects like.’

‘But young Mr Palmer just doesn’t acknowledge any Creator at all.’

‘Have another cuppa. You’re getting too deep for my liking.’

‘Time I surfaced, is it?’ She slipped into her familiar facetious patter. She wanted to confide more in Mrs Hansen but she knew she wouldn’t sympathize. Coal Flat had in fact disappointed her greatly in the two months she had been here. She didn’t like the hotel. It was lonely in her room, sewing or writing a letter, sitting on the side of her bed—there was only a hard wooden chair. She had tried spending her evenings in the parlour, sitting in a wide arm-chair, careful to avoid the one with broken springs, but then she would hear the men in the bar drinking and swearing. The swearing hurt her most. ‘Sheer lack of vocabulary,’ she would say to anyone else who was in the room, but no one seemed to understand her. It made her think that the Palmers were fundamentally wicked—that Mrs Palmer could cheerfully continue to talk to men who swore in her presence, and not take offence, that so nice a girl as Flora could ignore it. She found herself, when she read, forgetting her book and listening for oaths, not catching the words between them. Occasionally Mrs Palmer asked her in to sit in their private sitting-room, which was more comfortable, and pleasant so long as only Flora was there, but once Mrs Palmer came in she had to listen to those vigorous monologues about her own virtues, and sometimes Don would come in unashamedly with a bottle of beer and study horse- page 141 form or work out the dividends Dad had to pay out on the bookmaking he did as a sideline.

The whole town disappointed her. It was deficient in the polite class of well-bred, comfortably furnished people she usually mixed with when she went to a new school. She usually sought out the doctor, other teachers, the postmaster, the policeman, meeting their wives at the Women’s Institute or the Red Cross group. But here was no institute, there was a Red Cross group, but only workers’ wives belonged to it. The doctor was a communist, the postmaster’s and policeman’s wives had never invited her round for an evening. It hadn’t seemed to occur to them. The mine manager’s and dredgemaster’s wives were patronizing even. Only Mrs Hansen had asked her round for a meal—and her husband, a carpenter at the mine, had the local rough manners, afraid like all the local men to be polite in case he should appear soft and effeminate. Even Mr Heath had never asked her, or any of the staff, to call. She had never seen Arthur Hendersen again except passing him, perhaps, in the afternoon as he made his way from the bath-house at the mine to the bar. He always smiled politely and perkily, bending his head because he had no hat to raise; and every time she saw him she was reminded how the hopes he had raised in her of meeting friendly people had not been seconded. She no longer believed in West Coast hospitality. She had already lost much of her bright arch manner, except when she deliberately remembered it. ‘I hadn’t the foggiest where Coal Flat was when I applied,’ she kept telling people, and was not aware that they did not like it.

‘Really this town was rather a disappointment for me, Belle,’ she said.

‘Oh?’ Mrs Hansen said. ‘Why?’

‘Everyone is so coarse,’ Miss Dane said. ‘So blunt and rude—and heathen.’

‘That’s the West Coast,’ Mrs Hansen said, proud of the distinction.

‘Oh, well, I suppose I’ll have to like it or lump it,’ Miss Dane said. ‘It’ll be an interesting experience to look back to.’

‘When you get back to civilization,’ Mrs Hansen said with blunt irony, ‘you’ll feel how brave you were, venturing into the wilds.’

They talked for a while of knitting patterns, till eventually Miss Dane said: ‘Time I got back to the whare.’

‘Palmers’ paa!’ Mrs Hansen said. ‘If you hurry you’ll be in time for the war council.’

As Miss Dane approached the hotel she saw the man who had been pointed out to her a Mike Herlihy lurch out of the door, page 142 soggy and morose. She smiled a little frigidly, as if to an agent of the devil, at Father Flaherty who was passing and touched his black felt hat as he grinned at her. She heard Herlihy say, ‘Good day, Father!’ but the priest didn’t answer him, just gave him a cold frank cheeky stare.

As soon as she was in the passage Mrs Palmer called, ‘Is that you, Miss Dane?’ She went to the kitchen where the whole Palmer family except Doris was meeting. Dad had left the bar unattended. Donnie was sitting on a tricycle, eating a chocolate biscuit, with his right wrist bandaged. This, she thought, was quite unnecessary; they would be making the child feel too important altogether.

‘Donnie,’ she said brightly. ‘Have you been running over yourself with your trike? Really that wrist of yours is a naughty old wrist. I think we’d better buy you a new one. This morning it was sore and I thought it would be better by now surely, and now I see you’ve hurt it again.’

‘It’s still sore from the strap,’ Donnie said.

‘You take your trike outside and ride it in the backyard, pet,’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘It’s not as funny as that,’ she said to Miss Dane. ‘It’s all very well for you teachers. I’m not going to stand by and see my grandson bullied.’

‘I’m sure you don’t mean that I did it, Mrs Palmer?’

‘No, but you’re making light of it, Miss Dane. As I see it, it’s the parents’ job to chastise children, not any bullying teacher.’

‘Really, Mrs Palmer, I hope you don’t think that I bully the children.’

‘No, I don’t mean you, Miss Dane. I mean that worm of a headmaster you’ve got up there at the school.’

‘Easy does it, Lil,’ Dad said. ‘You’ll be putting up your blood-pressure. We don’t want you on the sick list too.’ Not that there was any fear of that.

‘Paul says Heath only strapped Donnie to get even with him.

‘Well, as I said to Heath,’ Don said. ‘You teachers can have your rows but leave my son out of them.’

‘I wasn’t to know he’d pick on Donnie,’ Rogers said. ‘The whole thing needn’t have happened.’

‘He must have a cruel nature,’ Flora said. ‘The weal made me feel sick.’

‘The doctor said he hadn’t seen one like it before,’ Mum said.

‘Well, Mr Heath may have gone too far,’ Miss Dane said. ‘But I don’t think we should be talking about him like this. After all, Mr Rogers, you must admit it was time something was done about the discipline in your room.’

page 143

‘What’s wrong with my discipline?’

‘The chatter I hear through the wall.’

‘They’re infants, Miss Dane. I let them talk quietly so long as they’re working. I’m running a class, not an army.’

‘They have to learn to be quiet.’

‘Well, there’s no one quieter than Donnie. If Heath had to pick on someone he could have found plenty rowdier than Donnie.’

‘Donnie hasn’t got cheeky,’ Flora said. ‘If Paul’s class was rowdy, he’d have got cheeky. And he likes school now. He said so. And his reading is better.’

‘Well, Mr Heath wouldn’t have strapped Donnie if he hadn’t had good reason,’ Miss Dane said. ‘He isn’t a malicious man.’

‘He strapped him for asking another boy for some chalk,’ Rogers said. ‘How could he borrow chalk without asking for it? It’s manners to ask for it.’

‘He shouldn’t have talked while the headmaster was in the room. You must agree, they have to learn respect?’

‘I don’t disagree with that,’ Don said.

‘He didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to talk while Heath was there,’ Rogers said, ‘because I’d never told them that.’

‘Then that’s your fault, Paul.’

‘Heath could have growled at him. That would have been enough without strapping him.’

‘Well, as I see it,’ Dad said. ‘Heath is the representative of the Canterbury Education Board and he has to maintain discipline. And he has a right to interfere if you’re not up to scratch, Paul, and you just have to take orders from him.’

‘That may be. I don’t see why Donnie should suffer.’

‘Donnie suffered for your faults,’ Dad said. ‘If you’d told them to be quiet when Heath was in the room, it would never have happened.’

‘He should have told me off then, not Donnie.’

‘A man in any position of authority has to make an example.’

‘I don’t care what you say,’ Mum said. ‘Heath went too far.’

‘Yes, I’ll admit that,’ Dad said. ‘He went too far.’