His first impression of the Council School came by way of his nose – a pervading smell which seemed to be a compound of chalk dust, disinfectant, some sweetish odour which defied analysis, and over all this the familiar lower-orders bouquet of much washed clothing, worn over-long between launderings.
It was an odour not entirely new to Moss, for it had something of the flavour of Sunday School, though without the added fragrance of sticky varnish and musty hymn-books which gave ‘t‘Chapil‘ its distinctive aroma. He was to meet this smell of the schoolroom in other times and other places, and to discover that the effluvium of school is well-nigh universal.
He surveyed the hall from under his brows as he and his mother waited their turn to speak to the headmistress, and his first thought was that he had never seen a place quite so enormous. He noticed that it had a shape like the letter ‘L‘ with which he was already familiar, and that it bred echoes even louder than those of the chapel with which he had long been familiar. Only here, he now saw, there were desks where the chapel had pews, and the desks in each arm of the ‘L‘ turned their backs on the headmistress‘s desk. This last and quite enormous piece of furniture stood between the arms of the ‘L‘ on a raiseda square patch of planked floor, isolated on its own rostrum and with a piano beside it.
In the walls of the ‘L‘, again like those of the chapel, he noticed the tall windows, set so high in the wall that he could not see the playground beyond. Indeed, he doubted whether someone even as tall as his father, and standing on tiptoe, could have seen out of them. Each window, he noticed, held a glass jar or two, still betraying at first sight their earlier career in jam or pickles, but now holding a bunch of wild flowers which were sadly doomed to wither soon, or a spray of what he knew of old as ‘everlasting flowers‘, which were just as sadly fated to wither never.
At the lower end of each of these windows there was a large hopper, designed, it would seem, to let air spill out of the room rather than to let it in, and, above that, three huge panes, the topmost ending in a pointed arch, and the others supplied with stout cords, for some purpose which was not yet clear.
His curiosity about these cords was rewarded almost at once by the sight of a man in brown overalls, entering the hall at this moment and beginning to operate the cords in the opening and closing of the windows, for no reason that Moss could explain to himself. He was not slow to register, however, that the operation was accompanied by a delightful sound like the beating of a huge drum. Sometimes, he noticed, the window would at first refuse to answer to the cord so that the man was obliged to give a stronger pull, whereupon the bang that resulted was even more satisfying, echoing through the school like the Last Trump and testing the strongest nerves. Moss was to come to know this system of ventilation well, and in the end to learn that it was able to provide only the extremes of an icy blast or a stupefying fug.
The walls, he noticed, were much like those at Sunday School, being painted to a level well beyond the reach of grimy hands in a negroid shade of brown, topped with an inch-wide black line. Above that line, the colour was one known to the trade as ‘eau de Nil‘ – though surely no river, even the Nile, had ever achieved quite this bilious shade of green.
But he knew already, and had grown to accept without question, that the principle on which these colours had been decided was time-honoured, and one whose creed would appeal to every single soul in Hallamside. In the view of all the good folk of this town of soot and smoke, fabrics and colours were best chosen for their ability ‘not to show t‘muck‘ – not the most hygienic of practices, but understandable in a region where life was an unending war of attrition against ‘muck‘ in all its aspects.
All this time Moss had been standing by the headmistress‘s desk, still holding his mother‘s hand but taking care to keep close to the desk itself so as to be out of sight of the headmistress – a stranger to him and therefore to be treated with caution. But when Lizzie‘s turn came, he could escape inspection no longer.
A head appeared above him over the desk, and he and the headmistress became acquainted.
‘Come along !‘ she said. ‘Come round here where I can see you ! No, no, you‘ll have to let go of your mother‘s hand !‘
This was not at all to Moss‘s liking, and his mother was obliged fairly to prise herself apart from her son so that he could mount the rostrum and stand face to face with this august personage whom, so far, he knew only by repute.
He was not at all comfortable to be so close to this woman, nor to the desk, of which he had heard fearsome rumours. He had already seen enough of it to learn that it was a most imposing edifice with an enormous lid behind which the headmistress virtually disappeared from time to time while she delved in its bowels for some tool of her trade.
But at this moment he had no eyes for all this, for they were fixed on the toecaps of his new boots, and the headmistress had perforce to place a finger under his chin and lift his face to hers. Then, apparently satisfied by what she saw, she turned her attention to his mother.
‘Now, may we have the child‘s name ?‘
Lizzie nodded, and answered in a tone so subdued that the Headmistress was obliged to repeat the request. To speak truth, Lizzie herself – like most Hallamside mothers in such a situation – was more than a little in awe of headmistresses and the like forbidding personages, and tended to keep a respectful distance between herself and them.
This was Moss‘s first acquaintance with the impersonal first person plural, and he was a little puzzled to know why Miss Adams should say ‘we‘ when she was the only person there other than himself and his mother. The time would come when that ‘we‘ was so familiar to his ears that he would notice not the least incongruity when Miss Adams said, ‘We don‘t use our sleeves to wipe our noses, do we, Maurice ?‘ Now he merely put it down to the strange ways of all grown-up people and returned to the inspection of his surroundings.
Then the great desk-lid was raised yet again and once more Miss Adams all but disappeared into its depths, to return with a thin volume that seemed to him to encompass quite the largest acreage of book that he had ever seen. This, as he was shortly to learn, was that most sacred of all sacred cows, the school register. With befitting ceremony, Miss Adams opened out the book on her desk so that now it occupied its entire surface, took out a clean sheet of blotting paper, picked up a pen which was nothing more than a raw corrugated cylinder of wood tipped with a steel penholder and nib, dipped the point of the nib delicately in the white earthenware ink-well, and at last looked up at Lizzie.
‘Of course ! Mrs Garrett ! We have had children of yours before, haven‘t we ?‘
Lizzie felt herself reddening, as though caught out in some indiscretion. She could never quite bring herself to believe that it was altogether proper of her to have given birth to so many children, since large broods such as hers were held thereabouts to be the marks of women who were ‘no better than they should be‘. In moments like this she would rage internally as the feeling of impropriety was brought home to her; it was one more reason for her hatred of coming to school, where somehow she could never avoid feeling gauche and inadequate. Beyond the school wall she could cope without any great difficulty with a world which at times was unfriendly, but once inside these walls her spirit would shrink within her, and once again she would begin to question her own presumption in ever supposing that she had the qualities needed to bring up a family.
Then she caught the headmistress‘s smile and realized with a sense of relief that the question had after all not been barbed, nor designed to entrap. Miss Adams, it was now clear, was simply ‘mekkin‘ conversation‘. Lizzie smiled in return and nodded.
‘And this one is – ?‘ Miss Adams began, and reached over to look at Moss, who was once again cowering behind the desk. Now she came clearly into his vision as she leaned over still further to survey him. Moss did not care for such scrutiny, lowered his head and scowled.
‘It‘s our Moss !‘ said Lizzie, in a voice which mingled anxiety and pride. She gave Moss‘s hand a shake of admonition, obliging him to look up and meet her eyes.
In doing so, the eyes of the headmistress also came into view, as she leaned over even further to view him.
‘Moss ?‘ she said. ‘Moss ? I don‘t believe I‘ve met such a – !‘
Lizzie collected herself quickly.
‘Maurice !‘ she said. ‘It‘s Maurice Edward, really. He‘ll be five in three weeks !‘
The face of Miss Adams disappeared from Moss‘s sight and her voice was now less audible to him, though still clear as a bell to his mother, for Miss Adams had the practised projection which allowed her voice to reach the farthest corner of a playground with ease.
‘I see !‘ she said. ‘You‘ve brought his birth-certificate, of course ?‘
And of course Lizzie had not, and was forced into the humility of having to admit it. The headmistress‘s too-understanding acceptance of the error was almost as galling to Lizzie as a downright rebuke, and she agonized within as the headmistress, politely and without necessity, explained.
‘I‘m sorry, Mrs Garrett, but we must have the birth-certificate. We‘ll accept him provisionally in the circumstances, but I‘m afraid I can‘t actually enrol him without his birth-certificate, you know. Perhaps we could bring it tomorrow ?‘
Lizzie, crimson with mortification, was obliged to mumble that indeed we could, and hated the headmistress with even more fervour at that moment than the average Grimesmoor mother felt towards her partner in education.
Miss Adams now lowered over the desk again, and said, in a voice which seemed to Lizzie to imply that, though the mother was a broken reed, perhaps the four-year old could be relied on,
‘Now, Maurice, when is your birthday ?‘
But Moss had sensed his mother‘s unease, and had caught some of her antagonism. Overcome with shyness, and thrown off balance by the suddenness of the question, he hung his head still lower, and shuffled his feet in the new boots. The colour of his cheeks matched the bright glow of his mother‘s.
‘He‘s a bit shy, Miss Adams,‘ Lizzie ventured to say.
‘Oh, what nonsense !‘ Miss Adams replied, in the sort of light-hearted tone that verges on the ponderous. ‘We must learn to lift up our heads and look at our teachers, mustn‘t we ?‘
Lizzie could have told the headmistress that she would wait in vain for any favourable response from Moss to that kind of approach. He was always less mindful of the social necessities than his mother, and his first shyness had now given way to stubbornness, and to a conviction that in some way this stranger was trying to humiliate him. He hung his head still lower, but now mulishly.
Lizzie had met this bulldog tenacity in her small son before, knew that it would surely end in tears, and hurried to volunteer the information which Moss had refused to supply. Moss was duly accepted though not enrolled, the headmistress again, and unnecessarily, repeating that for that purpose she must have the birth-certificate. Then he was told to remain where he was, while Miss Adams dismissed his mother.
In one sense, the experience had been a blessing to him, for what he felt as humiliation had dried up the fount of tears which now would surely have flowed. He raised his head long enough to see his mother‘s figure disappearing through the door at the far end of the hall. And, unlike most of the newcomers that day, though he felt the sharp pang of loss he wept not at all. Once more he began to inspect this new world with growing interest, and his present mood soon gave place to another.
The need for tears was gone. Moss had begun to take a liking to his new surroundings.
Brought up in such a family, there was one simple truth which so far had eluded him, either because he was too young to grasp it or because it was so obvious that it had escaped his notice.
The Garretts were a clever lot.
He had long grown accustomed to a brother and sister who went to ‘t‘University‘, and it had never struck him that this was at all out of the way. Nor would he become aware for some years yet that he was the son of a man who, with no formal schooling worth the mention, was beyond doubt the best-educated man for miles around.
Any evening there might be a knock on the door as yet another resident of Grimesmoor came seeking Jim‘s help. If it were a near-neighbour the knock would, of course, be accompanied by the traditional lifting of the door-sneck and the question ‘Are yer theer, Lizzie ?‘ since it was always the housewife to whom the question was put. At which, Lizzie would leave whatever she was doing and go to the door, or, if she recognized the voice, would cry, ‘Come in, love !‘
On some occasions, the reason for such a visit would be a domestic or legal tangle which had defied the best efforts of the neighbour to solve. Nor was it always a near neighbour who called, for the Garrett family enjoyed a reputation for problem-solving which encompassed several streets in Grimesmoor.
Moss was well accustomed to such happenings, and supposed that they were routine in every household. He would come in from play, or from ‘running an errand‘, perhaps, to find a workman standing by the kitchen table, often with his wife seated beside him, her very presence a mark of the gravity of the situation. More often, the visits took place in the evening, sometimes just before the caller had had his meal preparatory to going on the night-shift. In such an instance, he would already be dressed in his working clothes, the clogs, the hessian apron and the gleaming white sweat-scarf, and carrying on cheeks, forehead, nose and chin the pink patches which spoke of his calling even when in his Sunday best. Sometimes, it would be a turner or a fitter from one of the machine-shops, his greasy-black overalls exuding the smell of whale-oil.
Seated at the table with its covering of oil-cloth, Jim would be wrestling with some knotty legal point or some obscure phraseology while his neighbour waited patiently upon his Olympian judgement, turning his flat cap in his hands the while. Jim‘s counsel would be accepted without question and without effusive thanks, merely a nod and a quiet word of appreciation for the service. No more was needed. No more was expected.
In time Moss would come to know and to appreciate his father‘s special standing in the community, one which was altogether unofficial and quite unsought, but no less real. Jim Garrett was of a type universally recognized but not often found in such neighbourhoods, the man who was entrusted with the funds in the works football sweep, the man who spoke for a mate (though quite unofficially) in any dispute with the boss, the man to go to with any problem which defied solution – and, because of all this, the man who walked alone. He was known to be a teetotaller, thought to be ‘superior‘ but not unapproachable, respected rather than liked, and trusted implicitly. If his workmates had been given to self-analysis, which on the whole they were not, they would have confessed to holding Jim Garrett a little in awe.
Jim himself was, needless to say, quite unaware that he held any special status or enjoyed any remarkable abilities; if there was one question he never seemed to ask himself it was where his children got their undoubted intellect. Lizzie, who was herself quick to learn, found his humility at once endearing and exasperating. But if Jim gave any thought at all to the prowess of his children, it was only with the bemused bewilderment of the mother duck who sees the changeling she has fostered soaring into the air, a beautiful, noble and unmistakable swan.
Over the years, none of this had gone unnoticed among the teachers of Grimesmoor Council School, though even they at length came to the same kind of casual acceptance of the Garrett children‘s prowess as Jim himself. As each of the Garrett brood passed through their hands they thanked God for another bright child who could for the most part get on with its own education without too much interference from them, and turned their attention to needier cases. No Garrett child was ever numbered in this last and most numerous flock.
Moss was about to show that he was no exception to the rule . . .