MOSS

CHAPTER 6

Bred in Books
Love's Labours Lost IV, ii

To one like Moss, accustomed to Sunday School ritual from the day that he could toddle, the school‘s morning assembly was a familiar ceremony merely set in new surroundings. He knew every syllable and note of ‘Jesus Bids Us Shine‘ and was word-perfect in the Lord‘s Prayer, as Edith Adams noted with approval. She had long grown accustomed to ‘Ahr Father wishart in ‘eaven ‘ow low be thy Name‘ and the like distortions, and was delighted to read from his lips a purer version. She noted, too, that his performance was automatic, and that his restless eyes meanwhile unceasingly surveyed his surroundings.

Assembly over, he was chivvied along with the other newcomers into the room at the corner of one of the arms of the ‘L‘, a room known to all and sundry as ‘t‘babbies class‘. There his teacher made herself known to the round-eyed children as Miss Hanson, and at once began to school them in their first lesson in the social graces, a dialogue in which Miss Hanson said, ‘Good morning, children !‘ to which they were to make suitable response. After some coaching, they managed to reply in ragged unison, ‘Mornin‘, Miss ‘Anson !‘

Moss‘s first impression of his teacher was of a fairly elderly lady of obvious wisdom and maturity, but by no means as fearsome as Miss Adams. There was, of course, no way that he could know that Miss Hanson‘s apparent aplomb hid a quivering sense of her own inadequacy and inexperience, as she faced this the first morning of her teaching career.

Neither the ordeal of ‘criticism lessons‘ under the eagle eye of the local inspector during her year as a student-teacher nor her ‘school practice‘ at training college had quite prepared her for the daunting experience of facing her very own class for the first time, with no other adult in sight to support her. Twenty years of life, one year of student-teachership, and two years of training college now seemed frighteningly meagre as preparation for such awesome responsibility.

To Moss, as to all her charges, however, she appeared intimidatingly grown-up and more than a little awe-inspiring.

 

What Florence Hanson saw when her eyes first came to rest on Moss was a face inclined to peakiness, crowned with a cap of hair as dark as ebony and cut straight across in a fringe. Below the cap his small body seemed to run rather prodigally to bone in knees, elbows and hands.

It was the impression of a moment. Her eyes were drawn, as most eyes were drawn on first meeting Moss, to his eyes. A lustrous brown, set deep in the bone-structure of his face, they seemed to shine more brightly than those around him, having none of the lack-lustre flatness of underfed body and mind to which the Hallamside of the time was no stranger.

Those eyes gave the observer the impression that Moss observed his world and those who peopled it through windows that gleamed out of some mysterious cave-depth of self. In the thin face they seemed almost too large, and were set – as Lizzie never tired of proclaiming – exactly one eye‘s width apart. And, as Lizzie and all the world knew, this has always been the hall-mark of beauty.

To do her justice, not only Lizzie found those eyes worth the observance. There were others of her sex who had already felt envy, as Miss Hanson did now, of the long feminine sweep of the dark lashes. Eyes like that, she thought, will never go unnoticed among women. She tried to visualize them twenty years on, and wondered how they might disturb her profoundly then, as they disturbed her slightly now.

She took the first full impact of Moss‘s grave and faintly apprehensive gaze, and was lost. Moss, all unaware of the potency of his small basilisk glance, merely decided that Miss Hanson was ‘awright‘, before either had spoken to other.

She for her part felt suddenly less daunted by the enormity of some of her new responsibilities, and turned to face the ordeal of registration, every teacher‘s first task at the beginning of a new term. This instrument of administration, only slightly less in acreage than the one Moss had already seen, was a single folded sheet as white and almost as large as a tablecloth. It seemed more suited by its size and complexity to the task of recording the Twelve Tribes.

Like all good head-teachers of her day, the headmistress of Grimesmoor was a firm believer in the principle that all young teachers should get their priorities right from the very start of their careers. And, in the view of those in charge of education in the ‘twenties, immaculate registration was the first and greatest of these priorities. It was common knowledge with these authorities that teachers, and particularly young teachers, were notorious for the abandon with which they altered ticks to noughts and vice versa, in casual defiance of the strictest injunction. Such offenders must be made to see that an error in the marking of a register was a breach which would call for something approaching a change in the bye-laws to amend it.

Since Miss Hanson was a new member of staff and, worse, fresh out of training college, she could hardly be trusted to carry out such an awesome task unaided. So Miss Adams must be present on this first occasion to oversee the whole process, to see that protocol was observed, and to impress upon the fledgling class-teacher that the class register was sacrosanct, and on no account ever to be defaced with the slightest error or alteration.

While such an immense undertaking was in hand, work must of necessity be found for other hands in the room, in case Satan provided mischief for idle hands to do. So Miss Hanson was instructed to give out sheets of newspaper, to keep the desk-tops clean; some square sheets of cardboard, to keep the newspaper from soiling the plasticine; and, finally, a ball of plasticine for each child in her care.

Each of these balls of modelling material had started life as a cylinder with its own individual though somewhat insipid colour, but had by long association with every other colour arrived at a uniform and universal shade of mud. However, the children were not hypercritical, and Miss Hanson was soon free to attend to Miss Adams and the business of registration.

It was some time before Miss Adams was satisfied that her new teacher could be trusted to list the names of her charges and to complete her register without error – in the lunch hour, needless to say, since so much time had been lost already. Fortunately for Miss Hanson‘s peace of mind, her workmates took a liking to her and initiated her into the secret of immaculate registration, namely, the removal of all errors with the use of a household fluid named, perhaps, after one of England‘s great poets. Whether Miss Adams ever became aware of how often Milton came to the rescue of young teachers was a question which no one asked.

 

Plasticine was new to Moss, though he had heard stories of its attractions, and had looked forward to making its acquaintance. In no time at all he was absorbed in the fascinating task of making walking-sticks and bread-cakes, a pastime of which he soon tired and from which he moved on eagerly to more ambitious projects.

Even at this tender age his powers of concentration were awesome, a small death from which at times he had to be almost forcibly resurrected, with much show of impatience from him, and at times outright anger. There had been more than a few stormy passages of arms between him and his mother, until in the end she had come reluctantly to the conclusion that there was neither point nor common justice in berating him for not paying heed to her words when, in his utter absorption, he had simply not heard them.

 

With the departure of Miss Adams, of whose presence Moss had been almost unaware, the new teacher was free to move among her charges, admiring the fruits of their labours, until at last she arrived at Moss‘s desk.

He was lost to the world in his own project, one which Miss Hanson examined for some moments without being any the wiser.

‘What is it, Maurice ?‘ she asked.

There was no answer, and she had to repeat the question, with no better result, so that in the end she was obliged to lift his chin in the effort to win his attention. Even then his eyes still slid away, fixed upon his task.

‘Come along, Maurice !‘ she said. ‘Tell me what you‘re making !‘

And at last he looked at her, not at all pleased to be so interrupted, and without noticing that she had addressed him by name, even on such short acquaintance. He saw that she was looking at the plasticine with a question in her eyes, and wondered at the dull-wittedness of grown-ups who at times seemed incapable of grasping the simplest things.

‘It‘s cricket !‘ he said, impatient to get back to his task.

‘Cricket, Miss Hanson,‘ she replied. ‘Always say ‘Miss‘ or ‘Miss Hanson‘, Maurice ! Will you try to remember that ?‘

He turned crimson, and nodded. She smiled in what she hoped, no doubt, was a winning way.

‘And please don‘t nod at me, Maurice ! Just say ‘Yes, Miss !‘ or ‘Yes, Miss Hanson !‘‘

‘Yes, Miss Hanson !‘ he growled, half inclined to revise his earlier opinion of his new teacher, but won over by the smile which had tempered the mild rebuke.

‘I see ! It‘s a cricket match, is it ?‘ she went on.

‘Yes, Miss Hanson !‘

‘And who is playing, Maurice ?‘

He rolled a walking-stick, broke off another player, and stuck him in place, wishing she would go away and leave him to finish his work.

‘It‘s England an‘ Australia, miss ! For ‘t Ashes !‘

Miss Hanson looked again at the forty-odd players dispersed about the field, and asked,

‘How do you know about the Ashes, Maurice ?‘

He broke off from his task and looked at her sharply with drawn brows. It seemed impossible to him that she should not understand a matter so simple.

‘It‘s ‘ere, Miss ! In ‘t‘paper !‘

And a small plasticine-soiled finger pointed to the sports page on which the board was lying.

‘I see,‘ said Miss Hanson, though her tone belied her words. ‘There‘s a picture, is there ?‘

He pointed out, not without some impatience, that there were no pictures. Miss Hanson took him by the shoulders and turned him to face her.

‘Then how do you know, Maurice ?‘ Then her face cleared and she asked, ‘Were you told at home ?‘

He was beginning to find Miss Hanson‘s obtuseness a little tiresome.

‘It says so, Miss !‘

He turned from her grasp, pointed again to the newspaper, and was mildly surprised to see Miss Hanson‘s hand go to her mouth and a look of astonishment, almost of fear, cross her face. Nothing had prepared Miss Hanson for this. The virgin sheet of the child‘s mind on which she was supposed to leave her own loving imprint was far from being as empty as she had been led to suppose.

‘Tell me what it says, Maurice !‘ she said at length.

He failed to understand why she could not read it for herself, but obediently followed the words with a small finger, and read with no hesitation,

‘Australia wins the Ashes.‘

‘And who told you it says that ?‘ she asked.

His brows came together again.

‘Nob‘dy, Miss ! It says so ! Theer !‘

And his finger pointed to the headline.

She had to be sure. She picked out other headlines. He read them, not always without stumbling, but clearly with understanding. And even when she took him from the simple vocabulary of the headlines to the body of the text, he still managed to read, with only the occasional hesitation, but clearly with no confusion.

Satisfied at last that his first effort had been no flash in the pan, she allowed him to return to his task. So he did not see the hesitancy in her eyes, and the sudden decision in eyes and mouth which sent her hurrying from the classroom. Moss had already dismissed the incident as one more example of the odd behaviour of grown-ups.

A few moments later she reappeared in the company of Miss Adams, whose face showed some impatience and evident disbelief. For his part, Moss neither heard the door open, nor saw the nod of the head with which Miss Hanson pointed him out, nor Miss Adams‘s answering nod.

‘Thank you, Miss Hanson !‘ she said. ‘There‘s obviously been some mistake here. I was given to understand that he was not yet five. I did wonder why his mother had not brought his birth certificate. I hope this isn‘t another case of a child being kept from school beyond the age of admission. It does happen, I‘m afraid. I‘ll have a word with her tomorrow !‘

Moss was allowed to go on with his work without further adult interference, until Miss Hanson clapped her hands and told the children to collect up their boards and plasticine, and to fold their newspapers, so that the real work of the day could begin.

This was not at all to Moss‘s liking. He had by no means grown tired of such absorbing work, and there was a small scene with him before he could be coaxed into a new occupation. Lizzie could have told Miss Hanson that Moss liked to finish what he had started, and that it led to an altogether easier life to go along with this.

However, he was soon absorbed in a new pastime, and again all but unaware of the world around him. Indeed, he was beginning to realize that the terrors of school had been much overdrawn. For his part, it was growing more attractive with every hour.

But more than once during the rest of that day he was aware of the eyes of Miss Hanson, fixed upon him with a look in them which he could not fathom.

 

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