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



When Don Palmer left the committee meeting he walked down the school corridor. There was light coming from one classroom and he looked through the window. Miss Dane was in there chalking sentences on the wall blackboards. Mrs Hansen had blown in after school to ask her to afternoon tea, but this time she had not helped her with the printing. Don watched her squatting at the wall. Caught off guard like this, she looked, in a worn way, attractive. Of course her features were prim and slightly wrinkled, and he knew that, close up, her face hung in petulant folds like wet washing. But her hair was a glossy black, and she had a trim pert figure and a cheerful personality. He pitied her that she was still unmarried and had apparently never had a boy friend.

He tapped on the window. She looked up startled to see his easy grinning face, like a peeping Tom’s through the glass. ‘Oh!’ she said, straightening herself. ‘You gave me a fright.’

He walked into the room. ‘Take pity on my engine,’ she said. ‘It’s been knocking a little too much lately. I think it could do with a few new piston rings.’

‘Working overtime?’

‘Yes, I just had a little to get finished. I slipped away early today.’

‘I’ll tell Heath on you.’

‘Oh, not before bell-time. Only I usually stay on for half an hour or so. It’s just that it’s so quiet up here.’

It was quiet; only the screaming of the dredge across the creek worried the stillness of the autumn night.

‘Do you like the Flat?’ he asked.

‘Well, it’s an experience if it’s nothing else,’ she said. ‘It’s not exactly my idea of heaven.’

‘You’ll get used to it,’ he said.

‘Have you been to the committee meeting?’

He nodded.

‘Do you think anything will come of it?’

‘It’ll make Heath uncomfortable if it doesn’t do anything else.’ She felt disloyal, as if she was sanctioning rebellion against her page 170 headmaster. ‘He tried to make out Donnie was out of hand until he gave him the strap. Christ!’

She winced at the oath and ignored it. ‘Oh, there’s no reason to think that,’ she said. ‘Mind you, I do think it was time Mr Heath checked Mr Rogers’ children a little bit. But I don’t think he should have picked on Donnie.’

‘You wouldn’t have thought he’d need to give any kid that size the leather.’

‘Oh,’ she pursed her lips, like one who speaks not lightly from due authority. ‘You’d be surprised. Sometimes even the smallest children can be very naughty.’

Her face was again prim and, he thought, like that of any spinster schoolmistress. He wanted to undo it. ‘Christ,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t have your job for quids.’

His stubborn disrespect for her maiden ears and the professional flattery she deduced from his remark combined to warm her subtly, like dry sherry. ‘It’s got its compensations,’ she said. ‘You’re dealing with children—even if they are other people’s.’

‘Compensations,’ he said with a light sneer. ‘Compo. You need compo for what it does to you. But they don’t give you any.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, you can always pick a schoolteacher. Go to any dance on a Saturday night in the country, and you can always pick out the woman who’s been teaching a couple of years or more.’


‘Well, Christ, they start to look drab, their faces droop with worry over promotion and little Johnnie’s writing and inspectors and all that. They forget to keep themselves presentable.’

She was deeply hurt. No one had ever talked to her like this before. When at last she realized that she was right in suspecting that he was deliberately hurting her, her first impulse was to say something spiteful, but she had nothing ready. She found it easier to pretend that his intentions were kind, but her face, sagging with a sense of injustice, gave her mood away.

‘You don’t look bad when you’re hurt,’ he said with a touch more mockery than she could stand.

‘Mr Palmer!’ she said, stamping her foot as if at a defiant child, ‘You may be able to talk to your dance-hall tarts like this but not to me.’

‘Oh, there,’ he said with easy soothing. ‘Don’t take it to heart. Christ, I was only teasing.’

‘Please remember that the committee is meeting at the other end of the school,’ she said.

page 171

He put his hand on her forehead and held her head back and looked at her face with open tender mocking. She pushed his hand away, and in his expertize of philandery he registered that there was not too much force in her push. ‘I wish you’d mind your language,’ she said, a little more subdued than she had been.

‘That’s the trouble with you schoolteachers,’ he said. ‘You take yourselves too seriously. Look at Paul—he never worries about having a good time. Flora’s his first girl. You don’t bother with men. You should enjoy life.’

‘I happen to have a conscience,’ she said.

‘Well, who hasn’t? I don’t believe in doing wrong. But there’s nothing wrong with enjoying yourself. You’re only young once.’

‘Mr Palmer, you ought to know better than that. You’re a returned soldier.’

‘Christ,’ he said. ‘You don’t think us boys were saints, do you? You didn’t believe all the patriotic speeches, did you? We liked a good time like anyone else. And we had to go through a lot of sticky patches for it too.’

She didn’t comment. ‘Well, I’m afraid I must go,’ she said.

‘I’ll come back with you.’

She didn’t talk as they walked o the dark road. She was pondering this sudden brutal contact with masculinity. That was what was missing from Rosslyn. She was still working on the novel and she had begun to take it seriously. It had began as a light-hearted lark; now she wanted to make it plausible and to show her own hand. Rosslyn was not warm-blooded. He wanted something of Don Palmer, some of his mocking male ability to hurt a woman and tease her out of her pouts. Of course in the end Sandra was to see Rosslyn in humiliation, tumbling on to terra firma from an unruly steed, and afterwards she was to know his mind and moods inside out and operate him like a switchboard, but to make the victory worth winning, he had to have some power of resistance. Miss Dane walking beside Don Palmer was subdued and fascinated.

‘You’re quiet,’ he said.

‘Just thinking,’ she said. ‘I often think to myself.’

‘You think too much. Thinking’s not good for you. It makes you uneasy.’

As they approached the hotel he said. ‘I don’t feel like going in yet.’ He was very restless of late. He had been home two months and without a woman. That had been one advantage of living with Myra. Only he preferred the chase to its consummation, which, since he had gone into the army, always left him, in the end, disappointed. In Christchurch when he felt as he did tonight he only page 172 had to go to a dance, or perhaps a hotel lounge, or perhaps a milk- bar where a pretty girl worked behind the counter and he could trust his good looks to win his way. But in Coal Flat there were dances only about once a month—there were others all over the district, but he couldn’t always get away from the bar: it would hurt his pride to think he hadn’t a regular job like anyone else, so he put in his full hours. Most of the girls in this town were already going with recognized boy friends, and anyway they all knew he was a married man. He had started divorce proceedings against Myra on grounds of desertion but so far he had heard nothing. He did not want an evening at home tonight: there were times when even his mother cloyed on him. He could of course go and have a yarn with Paul, but tonight if he was to be with men, he wanted coarse company with fast drinking and lusty singing.

‘It is a nice night,’ she said. ‘I could do with a breath of fresh air myself. Just to blow the cobwebs off me.’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘You need someone to take you down off the shelf and dust you now and again.’

She wasn’t clear if by you he meant himself or her but she didn’t ask. ‘Oh well,’ she said. ‘Perhaps if someone’s looking for a pot of jam they’ll see you and rub you over with the duster. What’s your label? Peach or strawberry?’

‘Sour grapes right now,’ he said.’ ‘I feel browned off.’

‘You do need some fresh air,’ she said. ‘Perhaps a change of scene is the remedy. You need to be somewhere else than Coal Flat.’

‘A change of scene,’ he said. ‘Jesus, that’s an idea. Hey, you’ve got a car, haven’t you?’

‘Yes, in Mr Heath’s garage.’

‘He’s at the meeting. He wouldn’t hear you.’

‘What do you mean. Mr Palmer?’

‘I mean I could take you for a drive.’

‘Well—really, it is rather late.’

‘It’s not half-past eight.’

‘Won’t your mother wonder?’

‘No. You go up and get the car out. I’ll have to nip in and tell Mum about the committee meeting. Then I’ll catch you up at the garage in five minutes.’

‘Where will she think you’re going?’

‘I’ll say I’m going to see Doris and Frank, Frank won’t give me away.’

Ngahere was a small saw-milling town at the other side of the bridge that crossed the river. Miss Dane sitting beside Don as he page 173 drove her own car faster than she ever drove it herself, was excited and off balance. She half-admired the ease with which this man carried himself, his easy shamelessness in confessing deception of his mother. She felt a little clever and conspiratorial at being party to a secret rebellion against Mrs Palmer’s power. She couldn’t resist giving him nervous instructions on how to handle her car, but he quietened her by saying: ‘For Christ’s sake, I’ve driven before.’

His easy blasphemies excited her dimly; coming from his full, relaxed lips, lush and resonant from his throat, they fell on her like music, subtly tempting music. As she looked sideways at him she had a premonition that he was evil.

‘You know you should watch your language,’ she said.

‘What’s wrong with it?’ he said.

‘Well, the way you take the name of the Lord in vain.’

‘That. That’s just habit. I forget I’m saying it. Christ!—There, you see, I said it again.’

‘Of course I’m broadminded about it myself. But it does sound common. And I hope Donnie never hears you.’

‘I heard him say it himself the other day.’

‘That’s nothing to boast of. There. It just goes to show.’

‘Well, I can’t help it. It comes natural to me.’

‘You don’t need to worry in my presence.’

‘Thank Christ for that,’ he said. She giggled slightly.

There were two pubs in Ngahere, both rather quiet of a week night. At the ‘Railway’ there was a room where they could drink away from the bar. As he pulled up outside she said, ‘Oh I say, Mr Palmer. Where are we going?’

‘Inside,’ he said. ‘I’m thirsty.’

‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m quite firm about this. I don’t drink.’

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘One won’t hurt you.’

‘You don’t understand. It’s a principle with me. No, no, Mr Palmer. We’ve had our fun. I think it’s time we turned round and went back home.’

‘Call me Don. Come on, one drink won’t hurt. Well, you wait here and I’ll go inside.’

‘How long will you be? I don’t want to be seen waiting here outside a hotel. I think I should drive farther up and wait.’

‘Then come inside. You can drink lemonade. That’s not against your principles, is it?’

They went inside and Don got her lemonade, only there was gin in it too. She said it smelt a little, it was a little oily, but he said, oh, that was just the kind of lemonade they were making nowadays. She was ready to be aggrieved, feeling that at least he might respect page 174 her principles, but he just looked at her with that gentle mockery, and teased her to smile; clumsily she smiled, while he was amused that she was so unused to relaxing. There was no one in the pub who knew them, and they had the room to themselves. There was a wood fire. He drank long beers and drained a pint quicker than she got through a nip of gin with lemonade. She had another gin. He gave her a cigarette, thought she had never smoked. She felt excited. confused, and a little dizzy, ‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘I am a naughty girl tonight. What a night of dissipation. I wonder what my teacher would say.’

‘No tales out of school,’ he said.

They talked. She asked him obliquely about Myra and why the marriage had broken up. He answered, skimming the truth casually, as if he were cavalier about the whole thing, without telling her more than she could have picked up from any Coal Flat gossip. She talked, with unusual self-revelation, confessing some of her secret dissatisfaction with living in the pub. He deflected her from her complaints and got her to confide some of her hopes, to talk of happy memories. He was surprised in a boy-like way that her happiest memories were so innocent, little episodes with Maori school children, private jokes about Mr O’Reilly, the scrapes she had got into when she was a schoolgirl. He noticed her eyes were sparkling, her cheeks glowing and her voice was easier. She was animated.

He was gratified; he felt he had done her a good turn to have taken her out of her rut for a night. He got her a fourth gin. ‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘It’s half-past nine. We must go, really. They’ll wonder where I am back at the hotel.’

‘Mum thinks you’ve gone to bed early.’

‘Does she?’

Miss Dane was strangely and fatally excited; she felt no specific lust for his manly body, since she had trained herself for so long to see men and feel nothing; but her body was shot through with a sensuous thrill of expectancy, and she was ready to surrender herself to anything he might ask. She had no defences after four gins.

He drove back over the bridge and did not climb to the Flat. He took the road that led to the dredge and stopped. His unsettledness was relieved by the night’s events. He had had cheap entertainment and it flattered his pride that he had coaxed her to have a drink against her principles. He had already decided that he wouldn’t try to have his way with her. She wasn’t all that attractive, and her innocent confidences had fended him off; he felt that he had to respect her. He just wanted to talk to her for a while, to idle page 175 away half an hour, to tail off the evening flirting with his faint lust. ‘Why are you stopping here?’ she asked. ‘We should get back.’

‘Oh Jesus Christ, what’s your hurry?’ he said.

She didn’t answer for a second. She said with a touch of awe:

‘Say that again.’

‘Say what?’

‘What you said.’

‘What’s your hurry?’

‘No, the other words. The swear words.’

‘Jesus Christ. What do you want me to say that for?’

‘Fancy being able to say that,’ she said. ‘You don’t seem to realize how wicked it is.’

‘Wicked! Jesus, I said before, it’s second nature to me.’

‘You’re wicked,’ she said. ‘I’d never say it.’

‘Why do you want me to say it then?’

‘It fascinates me. That anyone could be so evil. I’d never say it. There’s a lot of things I wouldn’t do. Sometimes I wonder do you get any thanks for it’ She moved close to him. She was shivering. he noticed.

‘You’re not cold, are you?’

‘No. I’m not cold. Say that again.’


‘I used to think every time anyone took the Lord’s name in vain it hurt him, like a thorn in his side. You’re taunting him.’ He was too stubborn to satisfy her strange request, but inadvertently he said ‘Christ Almighty! Don’t get religious. I never think about it.’

‘You’re wicked, Don. You said it again.’

‘It’s just a word.’

‘It’s a swear word. I like to hear you say it. It’s like wicked music.’

He looked at her with an odd mixture of pity and contempt. She was trembling. Her hand was warm and her eyes and mouth were wide. In his psychology of women her state meant one thing. He said: ‘Come into the scrub.’ She followed him fascinated. She had an exquisite sensation of sinking into a tropical swamp. He said, ‘Have you had it before?’

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ she said, and he believed her. ‘She doesn’t even know that she wants it,’ he thought.

They pushed through scrub till they were completely in the dark. There was a solid mass of leaves around them, some creeper or other. He kicked something and struck a match. ‘What’s this?’ he said. ‘A bike pedal. An old ‘possum trap too.’ There was a sheet of paper at his foot. He picked it up and saw an obscene drawing of a page 176 man with exaggerated pudenda. He swore with disgust and crumpled it and put it to the match. It burnt itself out in a dank spot. ‘Take it easy,’ he said. ‘If it hurts at first don’t scream out.’

She was timid and trembling. ‘Are you sure you want it?’ he asked. He didn’t want to be accused of rape.

‘I don’t care,’ she said. ‘Even if it is a thorn in his side. I don’t care. Do anything to me. Anything you like,’

In the fading light of the burning spool of crumpled paper it occurred to him that the woman looked wicked herself. He proceeded to take her, feeling that he was doing her a favour. When he had finished and she no longer seemed to be able to help herself—so that he had to support her to the car—he said, ‘Now for Christ’s sake remember, as soon as you get back, give yourself a wash-out. Have a bath or something.’ She didn’t answer. They had neither of them seen Peter Herlihy behind the clump of muhlenbeckia, listening and watching with his night-trained eyes.