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



Miss Dane went upstairs to her room where she managed by sitting on the chair, facing the bed and using a leather case as a table, to write. She had for three weeks solved her boredom by starting to write a book. It was an arch novel set in Hawke’s Bay, page 144 though she drew on her memories of Taranaki. A girl from a boarding-school in Auckland came down with a school friend for the summer holidays to stay with her wealthy aunt who ran a farm in the hill country—some cows on the flat, but mostly sheep. They were clever mischievous girls bubbling over with fun, and their aunt was a plain freckle-faced spinster of thirty who got about in a man’s jersey and riding trousers, a practical woman, who could muster, dip, shear, as well as manage sheep-dogs with picturesque rhetoric that excluded swearing. She had a young blond returned soldier working on the place. He was a good worker but, though he would not admit it, unused to outdoor work. Actually, unknown to anyone, he was a medical student, who had passed his finals, but wanted a year in the open for his health, and his father was a wealthy barrister in Auckland. The humour of the book came from his city helplessness in handling animals, and from the resistance both he and his employer offered to anything ‘soft’ like ‘romance’ into which Cupid, in the form of the two schoolgirls, was teasingly and spritishly pushing them, much to everyone’s amusement, in particular Miss Dane’s. The incident which was to seal their fate was when Rosslyn, the doctor turned farmhand, was forced to mount a horse rather than admit to two taunting schoolgirls that he could not ride, only to be rudely jolted back to terra firma, remount and cling for dear life while the unruly steed gained speed at a maddening rate till Sandra, the aunt, rolled helpless with laughter on the ground when she saw him, and finally rescued him by catching the horse by the bridle. Something passed between their eyes; they felt Cupid’s darts and decided that they were not such bad sports and perhaps could stick it out together. The schoolgirls, who had secretly planned the match, returned to school gratified. The villainess, a coarse girl who worked at her aunt’s store at the railway junction, and had tried to fling her graces at Rosslyn, had to flee the town when it became known that she had been helping herself to cigarettes at the store. She smoked; and she used make-up dreadfully.

Miss Dane was at an early stage of the novel where Rosslyn drove in to the railway junction to collect the mail from the store. The store was kept nominally by an Irishman called Murphy though his wife, ‘whose only contact with cold water seemed to be when she was caught unawares in a thunderstorm’, did all the work. Murphy sat on a sack of potatoes most of the day playing cards with the railway porter—‘whose idea of a forty-hour week was one hour on and thirty-nine on his I-beg-your-pardon, that is, the posterior part of his anatomy’—and saying things like, ‘Sure, and it’s a moighty page 145 foine day it be an’ arl an’ arl.’ His niece the villainess was meeting Rosslyn for the first time. Miss Dane wrote:

‘There was a queue of local ne’er-do-wells and Maoris who had ostensibly gathered to worship at the newly-installed triumph of modern invention, the milk-shake fountain, but who actually came to feed their eyes on the ravishing charms of Miss Barbara Boggles, the chief dispenser of letters, milk-shakes, potatoes and clothes-pegs. Seeing Rosslyn enter the store, Miss Boggles deserted her admirers and rushed to attend him. She let her tresses fall in front of her eyes and essayed her best to raise a blush but unfortunately such an effort was beyond her ability.

‘“You were wanting, sir?” she said coyly.

‘“Ahem! Letters for the Barona station,” Rosslyn said. He actually was blushing!’

Miss Dane put down her pen. She wanted to enter the mind of her hero. She wanted to make him recognize Barbara’s graces and immediately see through them as shoddy and calculating. He was never to look twice at her. But she found it difficult to know how he would feel. She had known so little of men. She wanted to give him some spark of mystery, hidden passion, of the animal magnetism she felt was in Don Palmer, but she was afraid to put it into words. So far, in the novel, her idea of love between a man and a woman had been one of mutual good-humoured taunting, playing jokes on each other, resisting recognition of love because people in love made such fools of themselves. Sandra and Rosslyn were to be good pals, good sports, having fun out of each other, the sort of fun with which they could regale their visitors. But she wished she could penetrate the mystery of masculinity which she had not trusted herself to hint at in Rosslyn. She sat by the bed brooding (as at that moment Peter Herlihy in his hideout was brooding on his imaginary hermit stronghold) when the gong sounded for dinner.