MOSS

CHAPTER 2

Quarrel in a Straw
Hamlet IV, iv

 

In the morning of a smoky October Sunday, some three weeks after the night of the Zeppelin, the newcomer was baptized – or, in local parlance, ‘christened‘. The brief ceremony, attended only by the immediate family and a handful of fellow-worshippers who had lingered after the morning service, was marked by a homespun Nonconformist ritual, and held in the unlovely brick tabernacle known to its congregation as ‘t‘Chapil‘.

The child‘s given names were Maurice Edward, the first for the grandfather he would never know and because his mother felt that it was a ‘posh‘ name without being ‘stuck up‘, and the second for a king not long dead who had left behind him a mythology of merriment. However, had these pious folk, highly desirous of respectability in the world‘s eyes, known in all its sordid detail the sort of merriment this monarch had practised there would have been some sharp sucking in of breath among them.

The service over, the chapelgoers in their neat, drab Sunday best gathered round the family and uttered, as was expected of them, the traditional compliments. It was agreed by one and all that the baby bore a marked likeness to its father, as though this were an observation worthy of remark. And by common consent, too, Mrs Skinner‘s judgement of his chosen name was confirmed. There wasn‘t a lot you could do with Maurice to spoil it – meaning, doubtless, that there was no accepted diminutive form of the name. This was a matter of some moment in an age when George could become Jud, Mary become Polly, and Annie could become an unlikely Nance. The search for a name which was incorruptible was therefore worth while, and it was agreed on all sides that the Garretts had avoided the universal hazard with great skill.

Best of all, they said, was the lack of anything in the name to which its owner might object when he should be old enough to weigh his parents‘ choice. True, they added, Maurice in‘t a common name i‘ these parts. But then, it in‘t a soft name, eether, and that‘s a blessing when you think ‘ow many poor kids ‘ave bin cursed wi‘ a name like Percy or Claud, or summat just as daft.

What everyone in all this self-congratulation had failed to notice was the unfortunate conjunction of the child‘s initials. It was to cause the young Maurice Edward Garrett some heart-burning the first time the initials appeared in public on his new school satchel. But that would not happen until the days of secondary school, still distant by more than a decade.

They failed, too, to appreciate the difficulty young Maurice would have in pronouncing his own name in his infant wood-notes wild. His nearest approach to it, despite help from the other members of his family, was ‘Moss‘. Heedless of his mother‘s vociferous protests, his brothers and sisters seized on such a convenient name, and Moss soon became the name by which the world knew him. By the time the first of his school-days dawned the name ‘Maurice‘ was so much a thing of the past that the sound of it on a teacher‘s lips was alien and unwelcome to him. But that day, too, was still to come.

 

Little by little, his world took shape around him, beginning with the kitchen of No. 17 Fern Street, a place of warmth and clamour and of ever-changing odours, the characteristic smell of washday and the warm inviting smell of newly-baked bread. From that first world he ventured on all fours to the flagged walk which served the back-doors of the terrace of Victorian workers‘ reach-me-down dwellings that made up one side of Fern Street.

For some time, access to this new world had been barred to him by a back-step across which his father had fixed a wooden threshold strip, a device which was designed to keep out draughts, but which proved a lethal obstacle for the unwary. It was common knowledge in Grimesmoor as elsewhere that draughts were the most frequent source of human ills, from stiff necks and chills to rheumatics and pneumonia. In this, the occasional draught was equalled in the harm it might do only by the dubious practice of sitting on cold flagstones, an activity which was known to give people ‘summat they wouldn‘t get rid of‘’ – though what that something might be was rarely explained.

Many were the devices for keeping out draughts, from threshold-strips to ‘sausages‘ of stout fabric stuffed with sand. Nor was that all; to limit the number of ports through which draughts might attack the home, it was the practice to seal the front door of the house so completely that a caller at that entrance could prove an embarrassment, and might find that his knock was met by a muffled request to ‘Come round to t‘back, will yer ?‘ True, there were events for which the front door was brought into use, notably for weddings and funerals. But for no lesser cause was the hermetic seal broken.

The wooden threshold-strip at the Garrett back door proved for some time a hazard that Moss failed to carry, until the morning that he managed it by the simple ploy of tripping over it and pitching headlong on to the stone-flagged walk outside.

After the softness and warmth of the rag rug across the family hearth and the rather less comfortable linoleum-substitute which covered the rest of the kitchen floor, Moss found the stones of the back-yard cold, hard and unfriendly indeed. At once he set up a loud wail that brought out his mother, soap-sudded to her elbows from the Monday wash-day.

Aside from a bump like a pullet‘s egg on his small head, to which his mother applied a dab of butter – or rather margarine, butter being an unknown commodity in that household – the only legacy from Moss‘s encounter with the flagstones was a badly-skinned knee. He got little in the way of fussing from a busy mother once she had administered first-aid and a swift peck on his cheek, so he found little encouragement to go on with his caterwauling. And the next time he tried to escape from the back door he managed it without incident or injury.

In the course of time his wounded knee formed a large brown scab, providing him with a long and rewarding source of entertainment as bit by bit he picked it away, to reveal a satisfying patch of pink skin. The later pink and white scar, slowly fading, served to remind him of the dangers attendant on exploration, and to provide him in later life with the first remembered experience of his childhood.

Later still, he surmounted his next major obstacle, the low brick wall that separated the flagged walk from the higher level of ground which bore the courtesy title of ‘garden‘. This patch, some two feet higher than the walk, was reached by a flight of three steps set in the wall, leading to the garden path shared by the Garrett estate and that of the Pincher family next door. At the far end of this path and some twenty feet from the back doors of the terrace stood two small brick structures known to one and all as ‘t‘double-you‘s‘. It was to be some time before Moss was able to make use of this family convenience, and even longer before he understood how it came by its unusual name.

The plots which comprised the terrace varied greatly, ranging from carefully-tended gardens to pieces of ground which had never seen a spade and which were covered for the most part by makeshift hen-houses that might have been designed to bring about the demise of poultry in wretched circumstances. Nevertheless, a few nondescript fowls did somehow contrive to scratch a living against all the odds.

The Garretts‘ plot was a sour and barren waste, some fifteen feet by twelve, and – like that of the majority – had not been known to provide much in the horticultural line, save for occasional sooty irises and some woe-begone Michaelmas daisies.

Jim Garrett was not of the hen-keeping persuasion, having long since decided that hens and flowers could not easily be raised on the same piece of ground as a large family. So, over the years, the Garrett plot became a hard-packed bed of black dirt that proved to be, in the eyes of the Garrett children and their friends, a perfect playground. It was in almost constant use, at least in dry weather, as a suitable arena for marbles, cowboys and Indians, and rare ball-games on those few occasions when one of the children came into brief possession of a ball. And, as the Garretts were the only family in the yard to have abandoned all idea of making their desert bloom, their patch of ground became Liberty Hall to the rest of the children in the yard, who envied the Garrett brood such understanding and tolerant parents.

Their plot had the added advantage of being one of the few to boast a standing tree, a large plane. Though not well suited to climbing, it gave welcome shade in the height of summer and shelter from the rain when the children might otherwise have been driven indoors. Moreover, its young Spring leaves were interestingly sticky, and its trunk provided a suitable wicket for the game which in that neighbourhood passed for cricket.

However, not all the residents were as accommodating as the Garretts. There was one couple, approaching their middle years and so far unblest with offspring, who had on more than one occasion proved difficult.

The Willett family aimed at a standard of conduct so impossibly exalted that their neighbours, whose desire for such respectability was undeniable but whose own achievement meagre in comparison, found the Willetts impossible to live up to and therefore impossible to live with. The Willetts‘ hen-house was more stoutly built, its roof more often and more thoroughly tarred, their double-you more regularly lime-washed, and their doorsteps more regularly donkey-stoned than those of any of their neighbours. They were accordingly much emulated as models of good housekeeping, and cordially disliked.

It was Mrs Willett who introduced Moss to a new and far from welcome experience, one which he had not thus far encountered in his family circle, for his parents were now so practised in rearing children that they rarely resorted to violence, and his older brothers and sisters treated him with a rough but kindly tolerance.

He had toddled on legs still not entirely steady along the rough brick path that skirted the tops of the gardens, occasionally falling face-down, righting himself by getting on to all fours before standing upright, swaying uncertainly, and venturing on. In this manner he arrived at the Willetts‘ hen-house, where he found a door of scantling and wire-netting obligingly, and most unusually, left unlatched. In falling against this door he caused it to open and to give him sudden and unexpected entry to the world of Rhode Island Reds and White Wyandottes. It was the cackling of the fowls, sounding the alarm like the geese of Ancient Rome, that brought out Mrs Willett. There she found her hens fluttering and protesting about their few square feet of ground with Moss seated in their midst, adding his own frightened squawks to theirs.

And Mrs Willett jumped to the wrong conclusion . . .

Lizzie Garrett arrived on the scene just as Maggie Willett was up-ending Moss and giving him two or three tentative slaps on his small rear, before depositing him outside the hen-house and turning to calm her outraged poultry.

Moss‘s bellow was one born more of offended dignity than pain, for his small behind was thickly padded with his nappy. But the sound of his cries aroused in his mother a pitch of fury and indignation so intense that it brought her neighbours scurrying out so as not to miss a moment of the promised drama.

Like her husband, Lizzie was friendly enough with her neighbours without being on terms of intimacy with any of them. To speak truth, most of their neighbours held Jim and Lizzie and their clever children a little in awe. It was common knowledge in that quarter of Grimesmoor that the Garrett family not only had books in their home but actually read them, a practice which ruled out easy cameraderie. Such an arm‘s length association, providing as it did a barrier to close friendships, had the accompanying disadvantage that it also prevented quarrels, a satisfying source of drama in lives not often exciting. So this set-to between Lizzie and Maggie was not to be missed.

Placid by nature, Lizzie had always taken care to stay on good terms with her neighbours but, now that the issue was joined, she took up the cudgels more ferociously than any of her neighbours would have done. In all their differences, these good folk were careful to ensure that, however outwardly violent the battle might seem, the drama should always contain a vein of enjoyment. Not so with Lizzie. The dispute rapidly grew into a ‘row‘ of such monumental proportions and unprecedented insult that her neighbours were to remember it for a very long day. Her very belligerence on this occasion, so far removed from what was custom and practice, was to assure her henceforth of a large immunity, for her neighbours took note of what a doughty opponent she was, and vowed never to cross swords with her and to handle Lizzie Garrett with kid gloves from then on.

Moss was quite bewildered by it all, not least by the lack of any seeming proportion between the cause and its effect, but most of all by his mother, eventually seated in her own kitchen at the close of hostilities, and sobbing her heart out. At once he added his tears to hers, so that when Jim at last came home he found, as he put it ‘a right old cryin‘ match gooin‘ on.‘

 

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