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



In the evening of the same day Rogers was sitting with Don on the bench outside the hotel. It was unusually mild weather for April. They idly watched the occasional traffic on the road as the dusk began; two boys bowling hoops in front of the post office, a few youths who had not long been working in the mine, toughly lipping cigarettes under the veranda of the store over the road from page 149 the hotel, swearing loudly, whistling at any girl who passed. They walked with exaggerated slowness, as if drifting, to the billiard saloon. Behind the store and the post office the bush on the hills was dusk-purple slowly turning into a deep blue. From behind the Paparoas the sun threw up last bright shafts, and on the bald top, as on any clear evening, a fine bright cloud had settled, a casual tuft of cotton wool, as lightly stranded as thistledown on a roof-top. There was a sense of deep bright peace as if the infinite and audible silence of this fresh empty patient landscape had absorbed all the tiny strident noise of the boys at their hoops and the youths at the window of the billiard saloon. Rogers’s eyes were fixed with a strange longing on that clear wad of cloud, sadly turning blue as the sun’s shafts retreated. It seemed, in a dim way, that he could transfer himself there and slowly lose consciousness and be absorbed into the peace of the universe…. Yet what was there to escape? He was a man in love with a girl who loved him, he had Don’s friendship. It must have been that he was at the peak of personal happiness, that he did not trust this joy to last as if he wished to get out now before events would betray their promise.

Flora came out with a grey light coat over her wine jumper and a fawn gaberdine skirt. Her new nylons made Rogers notice again how pleasantly shaped her legs were. ‘Mum says I need some fresh air. Would you like to come for a walk, Don?’

Rogers jumped to his feet. ‘What about me?’ he asked, and simultaneously Don said, ‘Walk? I had enough of that in the army!’

Flora took Rogers by the arm. As they crossed the road a youth called from the billiard-room window, to show his new independence of schoolteachers, ‘Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, Paul!’ Another shouted, ‘You watch yourself, Flora! He’s a fast worker in the dark!’

Don called back, ‘Shut up, Rusty Meadows. It’s past your bedtime!’

Rogers and Flora walked up the main street towards the deepening darkness of the hills.

‘I used to think it was terrible,’ Flora said, ‘the way these kids are so rough. Now it doesn’t worry me. Gosh, you’ve no idea how prim I was before I met you.’

‘You were never prim. It’s just that you’ve never been away from home. Everybody’s not like the Palmers.’

‘I must have had my eyes shut. You know Arthur Nicholson?’

‘Ben’s oldest boy?’

‘Yes. Just after you came back he wanted to start taking me out. page 150 I turned him down. I was pretty snooty about it. I didn’t think he was good enough. He was wild. All the same I’m glad.’

‘He’s all right. A bit young and headstrong. What did you have against him?’

‘I haven’t got anything like that against him now. If it wasn’t for you, I suppose if he asked me again, I’d say yes. He won’t ask again though.’

She didn’t sound sorry, but Rogers said, ‘Here, don’t let me talk you into it!’

‘There’s no fear of that.’

Rogers wanted to embrace her there and then; he looked back to see if there was anyone behind them. He saw a boy dart across the centre of the road and disappear into an open section where a grocer’s shop had been before it was (to Mrs Seldom’s gratification) burnt down five years before. It looked like Peter Herlihy. Rogers only squeezed Flora’s hand.

‘I didn’t know I had so much competition,’ he said. ‘A chap doesn’t realize how lucky he is.’

‘Or a girl, either,’ she said.

‘Flora, did you have any boy friends before me?’

‘I met plenty of boys at dances. But I never had anyone taking me out. Arthur was the first to ask. What about you, Paul? Have you been in love before?’

‘I thought I was. Nothing like I am now. Christ, I didn’t know I was alive then. That was years ago, at training college, before I had ever seen Coal Flat, before I was in the army. You don’t get much chance to fall in love with anyone when you’re in the army.’

‘When you were overseas, Paul….’ She stopped and fumbled for words. ‘I know soldiers aren’t angels. From what Don says, anyway. Did you….’ She squeezed his arm and pleaded, ‘No, p’raps I’d better not know. Don’t answer me, Paul.’

He said humbly and truthfully. ‘No, Flora, I didn’t. A lot of the chaps went after the women. I don’t know, it wasn’t because I thought it was wrong; I just couldn’t have made love to a woman I didn’t know…. I didn’t know it was better to wait. But I’m glad I did wait.’

‘Would it have made any difference?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t have given you up. But it would have meant I’d have had to make excuses for you, and I’d have felt cheap about it.’

‘Flora,’ he said. ‘It’s never been like this before with me. I wake happy, I go to sleep happy. All day at work, at meals, reading, there’s that thought at the back of my mind—that you want me as page 151 much as I want you. When I thought I was in love years ago I was impatient and dreamy. I couldn’t get through the day quick enough to see that girl in the evenings. I’d see a picture of her in my mind and try to hold it there and slip off into a dream about it.’

‘I often see you in my mind,’ she said.

‘But you don’t feel restless and impatient?’

‘No,’ she said, slightly puzzled.

‘Because now when you’re at the back of my mind, it makes me work better, I put more life into my job; everything I do better. It’s like a new dimension in living, all the time, in everything I’m doing.’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It is like that,… I like sharing our feelings, like this.’

‘We’re getting introspective,’ he said. ‘But, Flora, before I couldn’t wait; with you it seems I could wait for years, so long as I knew you still wanted me…. But do we have to wait? What do we get out of waiting?… Flora, I’ve never told you yet in plain English, I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you, and don’t believe I ever could.’

‘That’s mutual, Paul,’ he said softly and unevenly, as if not trusting herself to say these things in the open street in half-light. ‘As if I didn’t know. I feel the same, Paul.’

‘Some time, in a year or so, could we get married?’

‘There’s nothing I’d want more than that.’

‘Would your father agree? Flora, you see, I haven’t much money. My army savings, that’s all. I’ve got a cheek to ask you, when I’m not well enough off to buy you a house.’

‘Dad would help.’

‘Flora, I don’t want help from him.’

‘Right now it doesn’t seem to matter, Paul. These problems are far away.’

‘We have to think of them. And your father isn’t too happy about

me, either; I know it. Would he oppose it?’

‘I don’t think he will. Anyway, I’m twenty-one.’ Then she struggled from her mood of ecstasy. ‘But I don’t want to have any arguments with the family, Paul. Not if I can help it.’

‘If they opposed, would you still marry me?’

‘It’s not a fair question to ask, Paul,’ she said with sudden distress. ‘Why should they be against it? Mum likes you, she won’t oppose it….’ More gently she said, ‘You’re a beggar for asking questions. You’re always crossing your bridges miles before you get to them.’

‘Let’s get engaged then.’

By the pressure of her hand he knew she had consented. Once page 152 again he wanted to seal the contract with an embrace, and again he looked round. He saw Peter Herlihy dash to a telegraph post; of his face he could only see a tuft of hair and a segment of his forehead, peeping to see if he was seen.

Even though she had consented she said, ‘Dad doesn’t like your politics, Paul.’

‘I can’t help that,’ Rogers said, ‘What does he expect me to do—give them up?’

‘He thinks you ought to.’

‘It’s not a fair thing to ask of man,’ Rogers said angrily. ‘Flora, I love you, you know that. But, ask yourself, I’ve got to respect myself too. How could I throw myself away for anyone? If I did that for you, you wouldn’t be getting the man you loved, you’d be getting his shell. I couldn’t ever do it, Flora. I wouldn’t pretend to do it, but even if I did pretend, how could I stop feeling and thinking the way I’ve been used to? I’d only hate myself for it, and I’d be poor company for you.’ He had forgotten his first disgust at the hypocrisy of Bering O’Malley, and he thought himself as keen a socialist as before.’

‘I’m not asking you to do that, Paul…. It might have made things easier, that’s all.’

‘Well, I’ll never do it, Flora, I can tell you that.’ ‘Let’s forget it for now,’ she said, and they walked in silence. After a while she said, ‘It’d be better if we didn’t live in the Flat.’ ‘Why?’

‘Well, we’d get established by ourselves, away from the family. Anyway, I don’t like this town. Central Otago was better. Everyone’s squabbling and talking behind everyone else’s back here.’

‘I like it. They’re strong union folk.’

‘There you go. Politics again.’

‘I thought you knew me by now, Flora.’

She smiled. ‘Yes, I know you better than you know yourself… You won’t always be at this school. You’ve got education. You could get ahead in a bigger town.’

‘Education!’ he said. ‘I’m only a schoolteacher. And what’s education for if it doesn’t make you want to change the world?’

‘That’s not my idea of education,’ she said. ‘I left school when I was fourteen. I was good at English and history. I’d like to have gone on. But when Myra came up, Mum said she needed help. It would have been selfish of me to carry on… I could have got my matric., I think. I might have been a teacher, or a nursing sister…. I always envy educated people.’

‘Couldn’t Myra have helped in the house?’

page 153

‘There you go again, always asking questions,’ she said gently. ‘Myra had Donnie to look after.’

‘Well, education’s supposed to make you ask questions, to teach you to think for yourself.’

‘I don’t like to think what it would be like,’ she said, ‘to be like that…. Once you start where do you stop? It’s like being a kid always asking, “Why? Why?…” I’d be like a fish out of water, I’d never be sure of anything.’

‘Not if everyone else was looking for answers too.

‘Well, everyone else doesn’t ask, “Why?” They say, “Because it is, that’s why!” There’s no sense in being different to everyone else.’

‘I thought you’d got over all that,’ he said with disappointment. ‘We’ve talked enough about things. I thought I’d changed all those well-bred ideas of yours.’

‘It’s like what you said,’ she said. ‘Habits don’t change overnight. I feel safe enough while I’ve got you to fall back on. But if I didn’t have you, I’d be thinking the same as everyone else.’

He said humbly, ‘I’d hoped that we’d be in agreement on these things. Flora, there might be difficulties later on if we don’t get these things straightened out first…. I had hoped you’d become a socialist.’

‘Oh, Paul,’ she said with gentle mockery. ‘Crossing bridges again before you come to them. If a woman loves a man, his beliefs are her beliefs.’

‘Then you’ll never be a socialist,’ he said. ‘If you keep on thinking that…. Well, I’m not going to stickle about that. Only don’t expect me to change.’

‘Let’s forget it altogether tonight,’ she said.

Again when Rogers turned round he saw Peter Herlihy peeping from behind a telegraph post.

‘We’re being followed, he said. ‘Peter Herlihy. He’s foxing us.’

Flora turned round. ‘The nasty little brat,’ she said. ‘That’s what I was saying. Some of the people in this town haven’t got healthy minds.’

‘They’re not all like him. He’s not to blame. He’s had a rough deal.’

‘You get away home, Peter Herlihy!’ Flora called. But there was no sign of movement in what could be seen of him behind the telegraph post.

‘Leave him,’ Rogers said. ‘You’ll only make him want to do it all the more. Just take no notice. As long as he knows that we’ve seen him.’

page 154

‘I don’t know how you can stand having him in your class.’

‘I feel sorry for him. I’d like to have charge of him for a few months. I’d make him healthy again.’


‘No one else will. His father’s not interested. I’d let him do everything he wants to. He only does it because it’s forbidden. He’d soon get tired of it.’

‘But he’d get worse.’

‘No. What he wants is love. He doesn’t get much from his parents. If he was loved he wouldn’t do these things to attract your attention. If he saw you took no notice of his mischief he’d get tired of it, and respond to your affection.’

Flora puzzled for a while. ‘You’ve got some funny ideas, Paul,’ she said. ‘If I start taking all my ideas from you I don’t know what I’ll be like.’

Rogers smiled. ‘I’ll be proud of you then,’ he said. ‘As long as you understand the reasons for them…. There’s his grandmother’s place.’ They were going downhill into the deepening shadow of the gully. The bins were dark grey against the sky which had turned the colour of unripe apricots over the hills. The side-hummocks of the hill obscured the tops, and the deckled outline of the bush was crisp and black against the green western light. Above them stray flecks of cloud were pink and behind them faint stars pricked in the slaty blue, like a scattered convoy at sea seen from a homing plane at lighting-up time. ‘She won’t recognize his existence.’ Below them Mrs Seldom’s house looked ambushed and hostile, except that friendly smoke rose tall and frail like the smoke of a forgotten cigarette. Oddly to Rogers the house appeared furtive and hiding like Peter Herlihy behind the telegraph pole. ‘She’s burning wood,’ he said. ‘The smoke’s blue.’ There were only a few rain-faded fragments of coal at the top of her path. ‘I wonder if the mine office know she’s run out of coal. I’ll tell them tomorrow.’

‘You’re always thinking of other people,’ Flora said gently.

They went as far as the bridge and looked into the dark fern-walled creek roaring twenty feet below them. Doris and Frank lived a hundred yards along, across the bridge. [sic: ‘]Do you want to go and see Doris?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to meet people tonight.’

Behind them there was a crash of coal on Mrs Seldom’s iron roof. ‘Peter Herlihy,’ he said. They turned back to climb again and as they passed a clump of broom Rogers heard quick furtive breathing. ‘Good night, Peter,’ he said, but there was no answer.

page 155

Below them, Mrs Seldom had come out of her house and was climbing the path. She held her hand over her eyes, incongruously, as if shielding them from the light. ‘Is that you, Paul Rogers?’ she called.


‘Did you see anyone throw coal on my roof?’

‘I heard the noise. I didn’t see anyone.’

‘Ah, they give me no peace. That they don’t.’

‘It was probably some boy.’

‘Ah, it’d be Nora’s bastard if it’d be anyone. He’d better not let me catch him. I’d beat the hide off him.’

‘Are you out of coal, Mrs Seldom?’

‘I’ve not a lump left, Paul Rogers. Only some slack. But I’ll not go and ask them up at the office for it. No, I won’t ask. It’s their place to ask me.’

‘I’ll tell them tomorrow.’

‘Ah, you always were a good messenger for me, Paul Rogers. You do that.’ She looked up to the road, where ten yards off, Flora waited. ‘Who’s the young lady you’re with?’

‘Flora,’ he said. ‘Flora Palmer.’

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Dredge people. They’re new here. I wouldn’t know them,’ and went back down the track. From the clump of broom there was suppressed snickering and giggling. It sounded as if there were two boys laughing.

By the mine office, Rogers and Flora turned a corner, to coast the terrace and look over Coal Creek. Rogers turned once and saw two figures following them. Twice they passed people of the town who said good night, recognizing Rogers by his voice, and stared to see who was the girl he was with.

‘That boy,’ Rogers said. ‘He’s had a tough bringing-up. Nora screams at him. Mike’s drunk half the time. They sent him to a convent and the nuns tried to thrash the devil out of him.’

‘Then what sort of a man will he grow into?’

‘He’ll be a criminal, that’s a certainty. Unless someone helps him. I’m trying.’

‘What do you do?’

He wanted to tell her but he couldn’t mention Peter’s first drawings. She was an innocent girl and he respected her propriety. ‘He’s obsessed,’ he said. ‘I can’t explain…. He did some funny drawings. He wants to do everything he thinks is wicked. It’s like daring him. Then when he does it he’s risking being punished. That excites him…. He used to like torturing girls, but I think I’ve cured him of that. He plays with boys now…. He sleeps in his father’s room. page 156 On Saturday nights he gets terrified because his father goes into Nora’s room.’

‘Oh Paul! How do you know?’

‘They don’t do anything. They fight. Peter told me.’

‘What on earth do you talk about things like that for?’

‘I didn’t ask him straight our. It just came out. He was talking to me and he told me that.’

‘Well, he’s dirty-minded, Paul; I don’t care what you say.’

‘Don’t blame him. I encourage him to talk.’

‘You should give the kids something else to think about, I can’t believe it.’

‘The other kids don’t think about it. It’s only him. It’s deep in his mind. I want to bring it out and get rid of it. It’s like a boil. You’ve got to draw the pus out before it heals.’

‘I know you mean well,’ she said. ‘But I don’t understand it. You’re playing with fire. You ought to have more sense.’

‘Let’s forget it tonight,’ he said.

They stopped at a corner of the road where they could look, under prolific autumn stars, across Coal Creek to the terrace where the dredge gouged and scraped with weird screams. They could see its blatant Industrial lights to the left, behind the shapes of the dead trees in the swamp on the terrace. At the bridge down from Mrs Seldom’s they had been oppressed by a sense of overhanging from the close shadowy hills; they had felt like two lovers approaching a cave. But here they breathed a sense of expansion from the open space over the flat terrace across the creek, and the Grey Valley beyond the terrace, and the graded dim ranges behind, tailing off into Canterbury, under thick early April stars, brighter now in this evening in which every sound dropped its memory on the ear, in a silence distinct from the weird screams of the dredge gorging itself like an obsessed monster; like a miser, clumsily eking the stray infinitesimal grains of gold from the clay and gravel of thousands of years.

Below them they could see the white snaky gleam, like a snail’s track, where the creek purred over drifts of gravel. The dredge and the creek—there was no other sound, and the stillness of the evening made the scene somehow significant, as if the sky and stars, and the land and the creek and the town behind them were bursting to whisper some secret it was vital for the two of them to know, only they couldn’t catch it.

Rogers looked behind and saw Peter and another boy, still trailing them, suddenly crouch on a bridge across the water-race that ran in front of the houses. He looked aside at Flora and saw again page 157 how beautiful she was in the faint light. Her hand slipped by his and he held it. Her voice was low and brushing when she said, ‘I didn’t answer you before, Paul. But I couldn’t hope for anything better than us getting engaged.’

‘I already knew it,’ he said. ‘I never had any doubts.’

At last they were free of public eyes and there in the dark they embraced, without lust or restlessness in their passion, so confident was their love. For a while it seemed that time had stopped, that their acts were no longer measured in minutes. They each only noticed, and that incidentally, how exalted the other looked in this promise of mutual loyalty. Rogers had no idea how long they had stood there when he heard a footfall some yards away, and a boy’s voice whisper resentfully, ‘No, I don’t want to’.

Flora dropped her arms and turned to listen. ‘I thought I heard Donnie. It can’t be. He’ll be in bed by now.’

‘It’s that Peter and somebody else,’ Rogers said. ‘Let him watch. I hope he finds it amusing.’

‘I’ll break it to Mum when I get home, Paul,’ she said. ‘I think she’ll talk Dad round. I bet she’ll want to have a party.’

‘That’ll be all right.’

The boy’s voice came again. ‘No! I won’t!…. Auntie Flora!’

‘Donnie!’ Flora called, stepping to the road. ‘What are you doing here? You should be in bed!’

‘It’s Peter Herlihy,’ Donnie said in tears. ‘He made me come with him to scout you. He said he’d show me a secret.’

‘Well, he’s a nasty-minded little brat!’ Flora said. ‘You keep away from him in future, do you hear? Of all the nasty things!’

‘I want to go home, Auntie,’ Donnie said.

Rogers could no longer resist acting against Peter. ‘You get along home, Peter!’ he called. ‘Or I’ll give you a good hiding!’ But there was no answer, only an animal scuffle and a swishing in the long dewy grass by the side of the road. ‘He’ll be hiding somewhere,’ he said. He noticed that the dew had made his shoes wet.

Flora looked at her shoes. ‘You see, it only makes him worse, the way you deal with him,’ she said.

‘You won’t tell Grannie, will you, Auntie? I didn’t want to go with him.’

‘No, pet. Only you’ve got to promise not to do it again, or I will tell her.

‘I won’t do it again.’

‘He’s corrupting Donnie,’ Flora said. ‘It’s not fair to the other children, your treatment.’

‘He’d be corrupting them worse if he was left the way he was page 158 when he came,’ Rogers said in an undertone, hoping that Donnie wouldn’t understand. ‘He won’t be doing this when he’s cured.’ He turned to Donnie and said: ‘Donnie, there’s nothing to take any notice of in what Peter said. Just don’t worry about it. He talks a lot of nonsense.’

‘There’s Gran calling you now,’ Flora said. Piercing the fresh night air, haunting and dissolving, sounding abandoned like a radio left on in an empty house, Mrs Palmer’s voice kept calling, ‘Don-NEE! Don-NEE! Don-NEE!’