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

1

1

Rogers and Don quite naturally made friends. Rogers was attracted by Don’s easy possession of those qualities he didn’t have himself—his well-proportioned physique, his good looks, his easy unquestioning confidence in his senses. Don in his intuitive way recognized Rogers’s innocence and trustworthiness in personal relations. He felt that Rogers would never do anyone at dirty trick, and though he felt he was, in his knowledge of women, immeasurably younger and less experienced, and so tended to patronize him for being, as he suspected, a virgin, he found it refreshing to be able to confide in a man younger and of fresher outlook. It reminded him of his own youth, before he fell in love with Jennie. At their first handshake in Palmers’ front room the evening Don arrived the two young men had established a warm contact. They felt at home with each other; and soon Rogers was thinking that life had no greater happiness to offer than the love of a girl like Flora and the trust and companionship of a friend like her brother.

It was in spite of Mrs Palmer that the friendship grew. ‘Oh, I can see you two are going to be great pals,’ she would say. ‘Well, so you should be. You’re more or less brothers anyway. I always tell Paul I’m his second mother, Don.’ She was glad that Rogers now seldom joined Jimmy Cairns and Ben Nicholson in the bar after school. Often he and Don would go to the hotel over the road, just to get away from the familiar company. Dad didn’t mind the small loss of custom; the publican over the road would see it as a small diplomatic gesture.

One afternoon, in Palmers’ bar, Don confided in Rogers the reason for his return home. He had been going strong with a girl in Christchurch, who worked at a women’s hairdressing salon; he had been fairly obsessed with her and spent a hundred pounds on her in three months, till his bank-book was down to fifty, yet he knew she was selfish and calculating—‘Why do I always have to fall for that page 147 type?’ Then she ran out on him; he called one evening at the Y.W.C.A. and found that she had left that morning for the North Island, they didn’t know where. ‘They did, but they wouldn’t tell. That was why she asked me for ten quid a couple of days before that, the bitch. And I still can’t get her off my mind.’

‘She’s not worth worrying about,’ Rogers said.

‘You tell that to a man who’s bitten.’

‘Well, you can forget her.’

‘I would if I could. That’s why I came home.’

‘Did you tell your mother?’

‘No,’ Don said, warily, then seeing that no offence was intended, continued. ‘She knows there’s something up though. She won’t ask. But after that I had to come back to my own. Somewhere quiet to lick my wounds…. If I only knew where she’s gone, I’d follow her.’

‘You never think about anything else, that’s your trouble,’ Rogers said.

‘Well, what else is there, besides drink and women, and your family?’

‘Your life, your life’s work,’ Rogers said. ‘And other people.’

‘Other people. Other people are well enough to look after themselves. That’s the trouble with this world, too many people wanting to have a hand in everyone else’s business.’

Dad came to fill their glasses. Don threw him sixpence extra. ‘One for yourself, too, Dad.’ Dad filled a pony glass with draught beer and leaned by them. ‘Paul says there’s more things in life than booze and women.’

‘Oh, that’s just to put you off,’ Dad said. ‘He’s the biggest drunk in this town, biggest sheik too.’ He wasn’t implying any reference to Flora; in fact he didn’t mean anything: it was only a routine bar-room taunt intended as a compliment. With a hint of real accusation he added, ‘Though he’s got fair competition now.’ If Don took the hint he didn’t acknowledge it.

‘What do you reckon then, Mr Palmer?’ Rogers asked.

‘Well—money. Money’s the most important thing in life. It’s not the way we’d like it to be I admit. But the world is built on business, and in the hard commercial world, money talks. It’s just a fact and you’ve got to like it or lump it.’

‘Well, what’s the sense of living if everyone’s just chasing bits of paper? When you come into the world you haven’t got a fiver tucked into your palm.’

‘Circumstances don’t admit the question, Paul. You leave school, you get a job. You leave home, you get married and then page 148 you’ve got a wife and family to keep and a house to pay off and you live for immediate ends. You don’t go worrying your nut off about what it’s all about. You ought to get married.’ Then he realized what he’d said. He oughtn’t to be encouraging Rogers when he didn’t show a proper appreciation of the responsibilities of a prospective husband.

Strangely Rogers didn’t take it as encouragement. It had never occurred to him that there might be opposition from the parents, or even that it would matter if there were. He was intent on this argument. ‘But you don’t live for money,’ he said.

‘Well,’ Dad said. ‘Not all the time, I admit. But a chap’s got to make enough of it to be able to support his wife and family. It’s the least you can do. You owe it to them.’ Then, choosing his words, because he didn’t want to commit himself to any recognition of Rogers’s attachment to Flora, he added, ‘And any man that’s got a daughter owes it to her to make sure her husband will realized his responsibility and can give her the comfort she’s entitled to.’

‘I can see we’ll have to get you married off,’ Don said.

It was only in retrospect that the full meaning of Dad’s words came home to Rogers. He had never even thought of marriage; not yet. Nor had Flora, not to his knowledge anyway. But marriage meant buying a house, furnishing it, getting a garden in order—not a minute to spare before the family arrived, and then none till they were out of infancy. Was he ready for that yet?—was Flora? He didn’t even know exactly how much money he had in the bank. His army savings—deferred pay, overseas pay, mufti allowance; it must be about four hundred altogether. To him it had seemed a small fortune. To the Palmer family, it would only buy the furniture. It was a blow all right to think of that all of a sudden. ‘Christ!’ he thought, ‘Where do I start?’ It seemed that all the authority of the elders of the country was descending on him like an axe in vengeance for his flirting around with ideas and politics and things that, in their minds, had nothing to do with the facts of life.