It was not to be expected that such an event could be kept secret long. When Grimesmoor heard the astounding news it said with one voice, Well, who‘d ‘ave thowt it ? It went on to add, being in no way different from the rest of mankind, that of coorse it‘d known it all along; that Maggie Willett was no chicken to be ‘avin‘ her first; and that there were moor to Albert Willett than they‘d reckoned.
In that place at that time it was customary for child-bearing to begin in the ‘teens rather than the late thirties. So, as Maggie‘s time drew near, there were those who said, darkly, that the Willetts would be lucky if the bairn survived; that it would likely be a poor thing if it did; that the Willetts would be getting on in years before their offspring was well into its ‘teens; and that Maggie could look forward to a rough time in child-bed.
None of these things, of course, were said in Maggie‘s hearing. To her face, one and all exclaimed their delight at the news, and their confidence that all would go well. Had Maggie faced the coming event with any foreboding – which she certainly did not, spending the months of waiting in a dazed, ecstatic rapture – the number of their reassurances might have given her grounds for apprehension.
Like most human predictions, these proved to be as nearly reliable as humankind itself, which is to say not at all. True, Maggie‘s labour was indeed hard and prolonged and, before it was over, she was glad that Albert had insisted on calling in the doctor rather than entrusting her to the rough-and-ready services of Mrs Skinner, whose skills owed more to folklore than nursing training.
But – unlike most of the neighbour wives, for whom the subject of childbirth was a storehouse of reminiscence which grew richer and more extravagant with every telling – none save Lizzie ever heard from Maggie‘s lips one word concerning the ordeal of her confinement and the rigours through which she had undoubtedly passed. It was, Lizzie thought, as though the Good Lord, having decided to bestow upon Maggie Willett the best of his treasure, must first be assured that she was worthy of such blessing.
‘They don‘t know, Lizzie,‘ she said. ‘They don‘t know ! A‘d go through it a hundred times, aye, every minute of it, for another like Alec !‘
Her undaunted resolution was not to be put to the test, however, for there proved to be but one arrow in the Willett quiver. Yet the stoicism with which Maggie had borne the long hours of her trial, the doctor having warned Albert that the birth might be difficult, and the manner in which she accepted her suffering without the presence of kinsfolk around her, moved Lizzie to unstinting admiration and caused her to revise even further her more recent opinion of her neighbour.
Her admiration was all the greater for the fact that she herself had come through half a dozen confinements with not a single complication. The bond between the two women, so strangely formed, grew still stronger, and the toughest link of all was forged in the hours of Maggie‘s labour.
With her newborn son in her arms, and her face lined with weariness after the long hours of her travail, Maggie said to her friend,
‘Yer know, Lizzie, A s‘ll allus say as this were your Moss‘s doin‘ !‘
To say that Lizzie was astonished at such a remark would have been a gross under-statement.
‘Our Moss ?‘
‘A know, A know,‘ said Maggie. ‘It‘s daft, yer might say. Albert thinks so, any road. But A don‘t care ! A know what A know ! A s‘ll allus say as it ‘appened that night. A was that upset, an‘ Albert wanted to – to comfort me, A suppose. So if it ‘adn‘t been for your Moss gettin‘ into yon ‘enhouse it never would ‘ave ‘appened !‘
‘Nay, don‘t talk soft, love !‘ said Lizzie, though not with any marked vigour, and in a voice which she found hard to control.
Their least observant neighbour could not have failed to notice that, surprisingly, the day of the monumental passage of arms had not after all marked the expected lengthy estrangement between Lizzie and her neighbour. Of the night of the great reconciliation the neighbourhood remained quite ignorant, except by implication; all they saw was that Maggie and Lizzie were now ‘in an‘ out o‘ one another‘s ‘ouses like dogs at a fair‘.
This new relationship proved to be even more rewarding for Moss, who found himself the recipient of unusual favours. It was not customary in those parts for children to be much entertained in the homes of their neighbours, most Grimesmoor mothers having enough on their plates in coping with their own broods without taking on additional burdens. A child‘s playroom, therefore, was the backyard or the street. When play was over, or he was required to go on an errand, he would be called from the entry-end with an eldritch screeching of his name, apparently pitched so as to carry into the next county. On his approach he would then be greeted by ‘Come in, our Ernest, will yer ? Come in this minute, d‘y‘ear ?‘
In any sort of weather which made outdoor play impossible, children stayed indoors in their own homes, savage for want of occupation and a sore trial to their mothers, who greeted the return of more clement weather with thankfulness that was entirely unfeigned. It was little wonder that it sometimes required threats to persuade their offspring to come indoors.
Moss was an exception to the usual practice, since Maggie had cast him in the rôle of a talisman which had brought her riches untold. He was actually made welcome in the Willett household, which until then had not been known to open its doors to anyone but the immediate family of Albert. And not only welcome. He was fêted. He soon discovered that when his mother was up to her ears in blackleading or bread-making, and much too preoccupied to think of breaking off and making him a mid-morning crust spread with margarine and condensed milk or with beef dripping, he could almost always count on Mrs Willett to fill the gap.
The birth of Alec did nothing to threaten Moss‘s new-found freedom of the Willett treasure-house, and, far from pushing Moss‘s nose out, the arrival of Maggie‘s ewe lamb made his welcome in the Willett household warmer than ever. And, since Albert Willett was a first-hand melter and therefore one of the élite of the steelworks, the Garrett crust might well be replaced by a slab of fruit-cake. Cake of any kind was a rarity in Moss‘s home, and fruit-cake almost unknown; on the infrequent occasions when it did make an appearance it was likely to be served between two slices of bread and margarine to ‘mek it goo further‘.
Those neighbours who had proved right in the matter of Maggie‘s labour were utterly confounded in their other predictions, for Maggie‘s infant proved to be bonnier than most and a sturdy child into the bargain. With so many fathers away at the Front at the time of Moss‘s birth, and the situation not being much changed at the time of Alec‘s, there had been something of a falling-off in the local birth-rate. But for the timely appearance of Alec, Moss might have gone short of the companionship of those near to his own age throughout his formative years. The years before school could have proved a lonely time for a small boy with brothers and sisters who were much older, a preoccupied mother, and few of his own age to hand. But, before Moss could begin to be aware of this, Alec was graduating from the toddler stage, and it was not long before Grimesmoor was beginning to comment on their friendship in terms of David and Jonathan.
Seen together, they were a chequer pair, Moss dark of eye and hair, a gypsy child, and Alec blue-eyed and fair as a Saxon. They complemented each other, too, in temperament, for Alec was a phlegmatic child, easy-going and slow to anger; Moss's rages were summer storms, sudden and violent and as soon past.
The friendship proved fortunate for Moss in one other respect. Having arrived after a lengthy break in Lizzie‘s child-bearing, a gap in which she had come to regard the seven-year-old Joe as the baby Benjamin, the last and best beloved of her brood, Moss‘s arrival called for some readjustment in her life. She grew more and more aware as Moss approached school age that he looked upon himself as a baby with grown-up brothers and sisters, and that but for Alec‘s arrival, he was in danger of becoming a spoilt child.
So Alec‘s appearance on the scene came as something of a blessing to Lizzie, assuring her that in the years between babyhood and school her son would not only benefit from the companionship of children of his own age, but would not be endlessly demanding the sort of attention which a busy mother would find hard to supply.
Nor were the benefits all on Lizzie‘s side. There were compensations, too, for Alec. As the only child of middle-aged parents, and likely to remain so, it was confidently predicted that he would be ruined, the more so as all could see that his parents found it hard to refuse him anything. Happily, Moss‘s presence put a stop to much of this indulgence of their son, for Maggie could not find it in her heart to give Alec dainties which Moss could not share, Lizzie having made it plain that she would not take kindly to Moss receiving too many extras which she herself could not provide. It was a good thing that the boot was not on the other foot, for Moss would have found it all but impossible to accept such an arrangement with the easy equanimity that Alec showed.
However, even in a companionship so close, it was not always fair weather, especially with Moss‘s thunderclouds from time to time threatening storms and overcast skies. There was one occasion he was to remember all his life and which he had no wish to see repeated.
Albert Willett, a man of long silences punctuated by embarrassed rumblings, could nevertheless speak eloquently with his huge spark-pocked hands. Alec was never short of toys which were the envy of his less fortunate friends, and particularly of Moss, who had few toys indeed.
However, the toys Alec‘s father made for his son were by no means run of the mill, for they were constructed in a manner one might well expect from a man whose life was spent in making steel in scores of tons at a time. Built as pear trees are planted, to serve the needs of generations yet unborn, Alec‘s toys were sturdy indeed. If Albert‘s son should demand a wheelbarrow, the product, far from being the traditional soap-box on old pram wheels, would be a stout affair which on level ground ran on ball-bearings as sweetly as watch-oil but which was hard labour to push uphill and dangerously precipitate downhill – added to which, three strong men could scarcely lift it from the ground. And all this, of course, with the best of intentions; in his anxiety not to subject his beloved son to the hazard of a broken limb, Albert, to the vast amusement of his neighbours, had been known to fashion a pair of stilts for him that might well have served as goal-posts.
Treasures such as these would have been food for envy in a breast less mercurial than Moss‘s, whose desire to own them was the sharper for the knowledge that his own father, preoccupied with his chapel duties, could not be coaxed to find the time to make his son so much as a whip for a hobby-horse. So, when Alec appeared at Moss‘s door one morning brandishing a new wooden sword, made to Albert‘s usual sturdy specification and innocent of nails and such potential dangers, Moss‘s covetousness knew no bounds.
Alec, ever a generous and easy-going child, was ready enough to let his friend play with the sword for a while, but the time inevitably came when he felt that it ought to be his turn. But Moss had by no means exhausted the pleasures that the new toy provided, and he tried to palm off on Alec a substitute in the shape of his own crude weapon, made from the stave of a butter-barrel which still bore the marks of its Danish origin – the nearest thing to a sword that Lizzie had been able to provide.
It was plain even to a three-year old that this was no substitute for the real thing, and Alec reached out to claim his own. Moss swung the sword out of his reach, and Alec circled him, trying in vain to take it back. Moss lifted the sword even higher, and with his advantage of greater height, it became clear to Alec that he could not reclaim his own – especially as Moss now ran to his own door, still holding the prize aloft.
But, sadly for Moss, Lizzie had witnessed the incident and correctly divined what was going on. She met her son on the step.
‘Give it ‘ere, our Moss !‘ she said, in a tone which should have brooked no denial.
Moss pretended not to hear. His mother repeated the command. Again, he paid no heed. Then he tried to push past her, still holding the sword.
He had yet to learn that his own quick temper had a source, and that source now confronted him. To his utter astonishment and dismay, his mother, usually so forbearing, stopped him with one hand, and with the other dealt him a sharp slap on the cheek.
The blow from the wet soap-sudded hand rang in Moss‘s head like a tocsin. He stopped in his tracks, rooted to the spot with its suddenness and unexpectedness, set up a loud wail, a mixture of offended dignity and anger, turned to face the innocent Alec, and brought the edge of the sword down upon his luckless head.
It would have been wiser in Albert Willett to have wrought for his son a flimsier weapon. But, as Maggie herself said later, ‘If Albert was to mek a matchbox, yer could use it fer a door-stop !‘
The edge of the sword opened Alec‘s fair head on the instant. In the next moment the golden curls were red with his blood.
Without a word to her now silent and white-faced son, Lizzie swept the screaming Alec into her arms and rushed with him to his own back-door. Moss, his sense of outrage now spent and his own tears wholly born of contrition, roared as loudly as his wounded friend, but the sound fell on deaf ears.
Some minutes later his mother appeared, white of face and grim of jaw, seized him in her arms and, with a single movement it seemed, swept him indoors, on to her knee, and larruped him until her own overwrought nerves had ceased to quiver.
Upon Moss, who, to speak truth, was less appalled by the enormity of his own act than by the sight of his mother in a rage such as he had never before seen, the experience left a mark which remained long after the marks of his chastisement had faded.
When Jim came home from work, he was told of his son‘s behaviour. For one dreadful moment, Moss feared that his father was about to add his own quota to the punishment he had already suffered, the traces of which still showed red on his small seat. But his mother, whose rage had fully abated, rushed to save him from his fate.
‘Nay, there‘s no call to be reachin‘ fer ‘t‘strap ! ‘E‘s a burnt child, is our Moss ! ‘E‘s ‘ad a damn good ‘idin‘ from me as ‘e‘ll not forget in a hurry !‘
So his father contented himself with packing his son off to bed, fasting and in disgrace. Moss hammered on the bedroom wall, drummed his heels on the bottom of his truckle bed, and screamed until he was like to choke for lack of breath. Maggie Willett, from two doors away, feared that Jim was doing his son an injury, and rushed to assure Lizzie that Alec was no worse for his experience.
But Jim was adamant. Moss continued to shriek, but to no avail, and in the end he cried himself into a state of dry, heaving sobs and at last fell asleep, denied even the sight of his mother fast relenting of her anger. Like her son‘s, it had departed as quickly as it had come.
The next morning she took a much-chastened Moss by the hand to Maggie‘s door, tapped on it, lifted the sneck and said into the gap between door and jamb, ‘Are yer theer, Maggie ?‘
It was the three-year-old Alec who opened the door, all eagerness to see his friend. Moss, seeing the curls swathed in white bandages, was appalled anew at what he had done.
Maggie brushed aside Lizzie‘s abject apologies for her wicked son.
‘It‘s awright, Lizzie. It‘s awright ! There‘s no ‘arm done ! Your Moss wouldn‘t do a thing like that on purpose, would yer, Moss ?‘
Moss had yet to learn that there are times when undeserved forgiveness is harder to bear than condign punishment. Abased beyond his control, he burst into a passion of tears.
‘Come in, Lizzie ! Come in !‘ said Maggie, opening the door wide. As they crossed the threshold, she made her way to the front room, calling over her shoulder,
‘Sit yer down, love ! A‘ve got summat ‘ere fer your Moss !‘
A moment or two later she appeared, carrying the offending sword and, with it, an exact replica.
‘‘Ere y‘are, Moss !‘ she said. ‘A towd Albert, Lizzie ! A said it‘s your silly fault fer on‘y mekkin‘ one sword. So e‘s made one fer your Moss !‘
Moss, the flow of his tears ceasing on the instant, reached out with shining eyes for the prize. But his mother was too quick for him.
‘No, Maggie !‘ she said, in a tone that Moss knew only too well. ‘A‘m sorry, love, but no ! It were right good of Albert to mek another sword, but A can‘t ‘ave our Moss profitin‘ from wickedness like that. No, no, A mean it, Maggie. If ‘e gets away wi‘ that sooart o‘ thing this time, ‘oo knows wheer it‘ll end ? No, ‘e‘s just come to tell Alec ‘e‘s truly sorry for what ‘e did, an‘ to promise as ‘e‘ll niver do it again !‘ And then, shaking Moss‘s hand with obvious intent, ‘‘Aven‘t yer, our Moss ?‘
Moss looked up at his mother and knew from the glint in her eye that her question allowed of only one answer. And, though Maggie eloquently pleaded his cause, Lizzie was not to be moved.
On the following Monday morning, the school bell tolled its customary warning, but this time it tolled for Moss, to summon him to yet more lessons to be learned.
With one small hand clutched in his mother‘s, and with a soul filled half with delight and half with terror of the unknown, he stood before the headmistress‘s desk to be enrolled as a pupil in the infants‘ class at Grimesmoor Council School.