Monday, the twenty-fifth day of September, in the year of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Sixteen . . .
Jim finished his solitary meal, washed the one plate, knife and fork at the kitchen sink, wiped each one with fumbling hands unused to such chores, and made his way back to the entry-end in search of company.
But the expected glow of the Woodbine was no longer to be seen, nor was Jack Pincher to be found leaning against one of the brick pillars there. Jim decided that his neighbour had doubtless gone in search of folk less taken up with mundane affairs and more willing to chatter over the events of such a news-worthy night.
On any other night than this he might have felt regret at the loss of Jack‘s company; tonight, he was almost glad to be left to his own sombre thoughts. Waistcoated and shirt-sleeved in an air refreshingly cool after the day‘s warmth, he leaned against one of the pillars, a still and shadowy figure in the darkness. At length, too weary from his day‘s toil to stand any longer, he rested his back against the wall, slid down, and squatted on his hunkers in the manner of peasants and workers the world over.
On any other night, too, he might himself have been as preoccupied as Jack Pincher and the rest of his neighbours with the searchlights probing the sky above his head in search of their prey. Tonight he had other and weightier matters in hand, nearer to home and more pressing than airships, or even the distant, though unheard, thunder of the monstrous Somme offensive, already going on three months old and likely to be older yet before it died of exhaustion. At a time when so many minds had learned how to put aside the contemplation of war and death and the like awesome mysteries to attend to matters of every day, Jim‘s entire thought was fixed on a mystery no less awe-inspiring to him.
In that day and age it would have astonished no one in Hallamside to see that, though the night was well advanced and his work over some hours earlier, he was still dressed in his working clothes. Only the clogs and the sacking apron had been folded and put away in their customary drawer; for the rest, he still wore the heavy flannel shirt and, round his neck, his sweat scarf, the badge of his trade. Almost luminous in the gloom, it gave to his close-cropped head an odd, disembodied look.
He turned for yet another look at the small bedroom window of No. 17, its upper sash lowered for the sake of a breath of air in the autumn night – a most unusual circumstance in a neighbourhood not much given to allowing the winds of God into its homes.
The window was now only faintly lit by the glow of candle-light, since Lizzie had asked him to draw the curtains for respectability‘s sake. He had gladly, almost feverishly, agreed to her request, hoping that the curtains‘ none-too-heavy folds and Lizzie‘s none-too-perfect hearing might muffle the crump of any distant explosion. For, on the principle that she had other and more pressing matters in hand, he had kept from her all knowledge of the air-raid which had drawn most of his neighbours out into the streets of Grimesmoor. She‘s got enough on, he told himself. Best if she can rest while she‘s got the chance, at least until the worst‘s over.
Along with a growing sense of unease, this thought also brought with it the realization that still, after such an unconscionable time, no sound came from that partly-open window. He was puzzled to know what he ought to do, the more so because of that disturbing silence. At any other time, he told himself, his Lizzie lying awake could have been counted on to be singing one of her favourite and innumerable chapel hymns. ‘Throw Out the Life-Line‘ or ‘The Sands of Time are Sinking‘, perhaps. Either she was asleep, or –
He told himself that he must shake off his fears. He turned again to his solitary watch.
And, even as he did so, the call came.
‘Jim ! Jiiim – !‘
Fear clutched at his entrails as he thought he detected in the cry a note of concern none too firmly held in check. He wheeled round at once and half ran, half stumbled through the pitch dark of the entry, guided only by the lesser darkness of the sky at its end. His footfalls rang metallic and hollow like a passing-bell in its narrow confines. As he came out into the open yard, the night sky, reflecting one stray searchlight‘s beam, no longer seemed quite so dark.
He scrambled to his own door, careless of possible obstacles on the flagged walk, lifted the sneck, and stumbled through the crowded kitchen-cum-living-room, still filled with the smell of the new loaves that Lizzie had baked as her final task before taking to her bed.
He reached the foot of the narrow stairway, marking with renewed alarm the ominous silence from above. Almost falling in his haste to get to her, he scrambled up the steep flight of stairs and, even before he had crossed the threshold of the bedroom, called out,
‘What‘s up, love? What is it?‘
Lizzie Garrett‘s face, older than her years, softened at the sight of the white anxiety in his. Then, suddenly, the familiar smile belied her forty-odd summers.
‘Yer soft a‘porth !‘ she said. ‘Everythin‘s awright! Stop frettin‘ yerself ! A just fancied a cup o‘ tea, that‘s all.‘
In the light of the two candles he was aware that her eyes were searching his face and he strove to look less concerned than he felt. She smiled again, but there was something in the smile that told him she was not deceived. a suspicion which she was equally quick to read in his eyes.
‘What‘s up, then?‘ she asked. ‘Did yer think it were ‘ere already?‘
He grinned, a little relieved but still not entirely reassured. He had a man‘s proper awe, not to say terror, of childbirth and all that went with it, understanding the business but dimly, and fearing it the more for his ignorance.
‘Nay, lass,‘ he said, affecting a bravado he was far from feeling, one which he suspected she would know for what it was worth and discount it in consequence. ‘Yer‘d think A‘d be used to it bi now, wouldn‘t yer? Aye, awright, love. A could do wi‘ a cup mesen. A‘m nearly starved to deeath standin‘ out theer !‘
‘Then why don‘t yer come in, yer soft a‘porth?‘ she said. The words fell on deaf ears, for he was already on his way down the stairs, his mind still full of anxious thought, but grateful for this temporary respite and for some occupation for his hands.
In the glow of the fire, still burning brightly as it did throughout the four seasons of the year, he searched beneath the sofa cushions for a newspaper. But even at such a moment, he could not bring himself to be prodigal with reading-matter which he might not yet have digested to the full, and he tilted the dog-eared sheets towards the fire so that he could check the date. Then he tore a strip from one of the sheets, folded it tightly into a thin spill and slid it between the bars of the fire-grate, where it glowed red at once and popped into flame.
As he began to withdraw the spill from the bars, he stopped for a moment, reflecting that, come Saturday morning at the crack of dawn, Lizzie would doubtless, despite all his protests, be on her knees before these bars at her weekly chore of blackleading. He pondered for a moment the inscrutable ways of womankind and his wife‘s rigid code of duty, until the flame died in his hand and he was obliged to make another. This time he held the spill down until it was well alight, reached up to turn on the gas before lighting the gas mantle, and stopped dead.
Nay, Jim, he said to himself, whatever are yer thinkin‘ about? Yer must be woolgatherin‘, lad. Lighting t‘gas? Wi‘ a Zeppelin up theer, ‘appen?
He threw the spill back on the fire at once where it flared up and was gone in an instant, except for a black, curling shard through which a quick spark ran. He watched it abstractedly, wishing with his whole heart that the coming event could be over and done with and, now that the hour was almost on him, cold with fear and again pushing aside the thought which had haunted him for so long, that Lizzie was no chicken to be having her sixth bairn.
He waited until the spark died before he hefted the iron kettle from its place on the hob, carried it over to the sink and half filled it from the one tap. Then, in the act of lifting the iron monster to carry it back to the fire, yet another sudden and appalling thought struck him. With a quick decision he rammed the kettle down on the coals, scarcely waiting to ensure that it was securely lodged there before scrambling back to the stairway and rushing headlong up the stairs.
He all but fell into the bedroom, crying out as he did so,
‘Eigh up ! Yer‘ve done this befoor, ‘aven‘t yer? It‘s ‘appened befoor !‘
She looked up at him from her knitting, eyebrows raised, clearly feigning ignorance of his meaning.
‘Befoor, love? Na, what is it that‘s ‘appened befoor?‘
He raised a finger and shook it, half in fear, half admonition.
‘Na, don‘t come it ! Yer know damn well what A mean! Yer‘ve started, ‘aven‘t yer?‘
No doubt she had hoped to keep the knowledge from him a little longer, but seemed to relent at the sight of his face.
‘Aye, awright, love !‘ she said, gently, as to a child. ‘Goo‘n fetch Mrs Skinner ! A reckon it‘ll not be long now !‘
His mouth opened to speak, but no word came. The next moment he was thudding down the stairs, knocking against the dimly-lit furniture in the kitchen, cursing the latch for resisting his first clumsy effort to lift it. Then the night air was again cool on his brow and he was running like a man possessed, glad to be away from the centre of the stage at last, unfeignedly thankful that he could be called on to play no further part in this night‘s drama, and dreadfully afraid, now that the moment had come, that all might not go well with her.
He came out into the street to an awareness that the curtain was coming down on that night‘s other, and to him lesser, drama. Wherever else bombs might fall this night, there were to be none on Grimesmoor, no gap to be torn this night from a terrace of houses, bringing death and bereavement to the hapless victims. Indeed, to those not immediately concerned, an extra spice of mournful gossip would then be added to the morning‘s food queues, an occasion for even more nodding of heads and indrawing of breath than usual.
By the time he reached his destination, the engine note of the Zeppelin had all but faded to silence. One by one the searchlights were flickering out, so that the autumn night was now palpably darker. Now that the danger was past, his neighbours, almost disappointed, perhaps, that there had not been more excitement, were drifting towards their own hearths and to later slumbers than were customary in Fern Street. Jim Garrett, caring nothing for all this, was knocking at the door of No. 8.
Silence. Then, after what seemed to him to be an interminable delay, the sash above his head was raised and a white head craned out.
‘It‘s me, Mrs Skinner ! Jim Garrett ! Can yer come?‘
‘Aye, awright !‘ came the answer. ‘No peace for t‘wicked. A were just gerrin‘ back into me bed. Awright, Mester Garrett, you get back to your Lizzie. A‘ll get me things !‘
Much later, as he sat and chafed inwardly, the newspaper in his lap open but all unread, he heard the first squalling cry, felt his heart leap at the sound, and knew some small easement of mind for the first time in many days.
Later still, as the minutes ticked by with no further sound, that first leap in his breast began to give way to a thudding apprehension. It‘s tekkin‘ a long time, he thought. What the hangment do they gerrup to as teks ‘em so long?
His apprehension mounted towards the slopes of actual fear. And then, just as he began to feel that somehow he must overpower his reluctance to approach that dread centre of activity upstairs, he heard the sound of the lifting of the latch on the bedroom door, followed by the voice of Mrs Skinner, pitched low so as not to waken the other children.
‘Mester Garrett ! Are yer theer?‘
Am I theer? he thought. Silly owd bitch. Wheer the ‘ell else would A be but ‘ere, waitin‘, waitin‘?
He was on his feet on the instant, throwing the newspaper aside, and crossing to the door at the foot of the stairs. The dark shape of the midwife, silhouetted in the light of the candle, loomed over the rail on the landing.
‘Yer can come up now, Mester Garrett !‘
He bounded up the stairs, heedless now of the bone-weariness that always marked the end of a working day, and brushed past the midwife with a whispered, ‘‘Ow is she?‘
‘Ee, Mester Garrett,‘ she replied, ‘it in‘t a she ! It‘s a boy ! A fine lad !‘
But Lizzie Garrett had heard the whispered question and read it aright. The knowledge that her man‘s first thought had been for her brought her near to tears, and added yet more joy to the joy of her childbearing.
‘Come an‘ look at ‘im, love,‘ she said. ‘‘E‘s a lovely baby !‘
Jim Garrett looked down at the small dark head lying against his wife‘s breast and shadowed by the thin woollen shawl, and knew again the familiar yet always forgotten wonder of this moment. Eigh, lad, he said to himself. A s‘ll never get used to it, never.
He lifted dark eyes to his wife‘s, and she wrinkled her nose at him as she had done at their first meeting a quarter of a century earlier. Then she pulled the shawl aside to let him see his son.
‘Goo‘n fetch t‘others, love,‘ she said. ‘A promised as yer‘d fetch ‘em when t‘baby come !‘
The midwife came behind him, her face still moist from her exertions and shining, too, with a craftsman‘s pride. She leaned past him towards the bed, and delivered herself of a professional judgement.
‘Eigh, yon‘s a Garrett awright ! Yer‘ll not be able to blame t‘milkman for this, Mester Garrett !‘
She touched the baby‘s cheek with an arthritic finger. ‘What yer thinkin‘ o‘ callin‘ ‘im, Lizzie?‘ she asked.
Lizzie took her eyes from the child and raised them to her husband‘s.
‘We said Maurice if it was a boy, didn‘t we, Jim? After ‘is granddad, yer see, Mrs Skinner. Jim‘s Dad, that is.‘
‘Aye, lass, that were your choice,‘ Jim replied.
The midwife beamed.
‘Maurice, eh? Na, that‘s a nice name,is that ! There in‘t a lot yer can do wi‘ a name like Maurice. To spoil it, A mean !‘
In the soft, yellow light of the candles Maurice Garrett slept on, safe in the crook of his mother‘s arm, unaware as yet of the world of love and poverty into which he had been born, ignorant as yet of wars and rumours of wars, and bearing with no evident concern the burden of his new-made identity.
But the midwife was wrong. True, there isn‘t a lot to be done with a name like Maurice, but what in the fulness of time was done he did for himself.