MOSS

CHAPTER 7

A Joyful Woman
Romeo & Juliet II, iv

Miss Adams took the birth-certificate from Lizzie‘s hand and inspected it with what seemed to Lizzie quite needless care, and with what she also took to be equally needless suspicion.

‘I‘m sure you understand, Mrs Garrett. We must check the date of birth with the official document. We do get parents, you know, who try to avoid bringing it. For reasons of their own, they want to send their children to school before they‘re entitled to attend.‘ She paused, and added meaningly, ‘And there are some, I regret to say, who don‘t send them as soon as the child is eligible.‘

Lizzie‘s only concern had been that the headmistress might have said that Moss was too young to start, at least until after Christmas. She said nothing. You‘d think she goes on clockwork, she thought. All that fuss for a bit o‘ paper.

She turned to go, but the headmistress, it seemed, had not done.

‘Oh, Mrs Garrett, you didn‘t tell us that your son could read!‘

The tone was almost an accusation, and Lizzie, already none too pleased at what she considered an unnecessary journey, prepared to bridle. Miss Adams read the warning signs, and added hastily,

‘We discovered it quite by chance, yesterday. We do like to know these things, you know. Fortunately, Miss Hanson reported it to me at once.‘

Lizzie‘s failure to understand was as marked as her son‘s had been. What the hangment‘s up wi‘ ‘er ? she thought. Yer‘d think as she was tellin‘ me as our Moss‘s got nits in ‘is ‘air. She searched with difficulty for some way to answer the veiled accusation. And then the light dawned.

‘Oh, it‘s our Annie Ruth,‘ she said. ‘Our Moss‘s sister! She‘s been teachin‘ our Moss to read!‘

Miss Adams flushed.

‘Teaching is a job for properly qualified people, Mrs Garrett. It calls for a long period of training. A great deal of harm can be done by the use of wrong methods in the hands of untrained people!‘

Clockwork again, thought Lizzie, and held her peace. Miss Adams clearly failed to recognize the warning signs in Lizzie‘s smouldering composure, and blundered on into the cannon‘s mouth.

‘Of course, we understand that parents wish their children to progress. We do understand that, believe me. But we would much rather that Maurice‘s education was in the hands of competent and qualified teachers. Otherwise, we may find that he has to unlearn some unfortunate habits. He‘s really much too young to be reading newspapers, you know. Most unsuitable, most unsuitable.‘

Head-lice again, Lizzie thought. All her quivering sense of inadequacy in the face of authority was quickly melting away in the heat of her wrath. The headmistress saw the bright spot in her cheek, and quite misread its meaning.

‘There‘s nothing to be ashamed of, Mrs Garrett, I assure you. On the contrary, it‘s quite praiseworthy of your daughter to want to help her small brother. But you must understand – ‘

That‘s far enough, Lizzie thought. A‘m sick an‘ tired of being told what A should understand. She broke in quickly before her mounting anger could rob her of the power of speech.

‘How old is our Moss‘s teacher, Miss Adams ?‘

The headmistress was nonplussed.

‘How old is – ? She‘s –! I‘m sorry, Mrs Garrett, but I really can‘t see what that has to do with the matter!‘

‘It‘s got everythin‘ to do wi‘ it!‘ said Lizzie. ‘A‘m towd as ‘ow she‘s just out o‘ college. Trainin‘ college. Is that right ? So she‘ll likely be a bit younger than our Annie Ruth. Not that we‘ll ‘owd that against her! A reckon time‘ll tek care o‘ that!‘

It was clear that the headmistress was bemused by the turn the conversation was taking, but before she could reply, Lizzie went on,

‘Any road, our Annie Ruth‘s twenty-three – ‘

Miss Adams returned to the fray.

‘Mrs Garrett, that really is not the point! Miss Hanson is a trained certificated teacher!‘

‘A should ‘ope she is,‘ Lizzie replied smoothly. ‘Na don‘t get me wrong, Miss Adams. A‘ve nowt against Miss Hanson. Our Moss seems to like ‘er, any road. And A don‘t ‘owd it against her that she‘s a bit young to be teachin‘. We‘ve all got to start somewheer.‘

Miss Adams prepared to speak again, but Lizzie would have none of it.

‘And A don‘t ‘owd our Annie Ruth‘s age against ‘er, either.‘

The headmistress felt that she was fast losing control of the situation, and broke in quickly.

‘It‘s not merely a matter of age, Mrs Garrett. It‘s a question of suitable training.‘

Lizzie had led her opponent skilfully into a position from which she could deliver the coup de grâce. Now she was savouring to the full the sweets of inevitable victory, and Miss Adams, clearly quite unable to account for the look of triumph in her face, was just as clearly becoming increasingly aware, for the first time since the interview had begun, of doubt as to its outcome.

She hastened at once to win back lost ground.

‘I‘m sorry, Mrs Garrett, but we must insist that your son‘s education is left in the hands of professionally qualified people! That‘s all I have to say! And now I really must be getting on – ‘

‘Just a minute, Miss Adams,‘ said Lizzie, standing her ground and speaking with icy politeness. ‘A‘ve no wish to tek any moor o‘ your time. But A ‘adn‘t quite finished! And you haven‘t answered my question!‘

‘Question ?‘

‘A asked yer what yer‘d call proper trainin‘!‘

It was now plain that Miss Adams was certain that matters had gone far enough. She closed the admissions register, as if to bring the dialogue to a close.

‘Mrs Garrett, I really don‘t see what that has to do with the matter!‘

Lizzie pitched her voice more softly.

‘In that case, there‘ll be no ‘arm in our Annie Ruth teachin‘ our Moss, will there ? Seein‘ as she‘s professionally trained, A mean!‘

The headmistress‘s open mouth made any answer unlikely, and Lizzie delicately placed her final thrust.

‘Our Annie Ruth left University two year since,‘ she said quietly. ‘She‘s a Bachelor of Arts! And she‘s got a Diploma of Education! Of coorse,‘ she added, graciously, ‘you‘ve not been ‘ere long yerself, ‘ave yer, else you‘d ‘ave known that!‘

The headmistress‘s still open mouth was the measure of Lizzie‘s victory. A degree in Arts was more than she herself could boast, and she more than half suspected that this mother whom she had so under-estimated was aware of that fact. But in spite of the veneer that spoke of the eternal schoolma‘am, Edith Adams was a teacher by choice and not by chance, and she respected learning.

‘Good heavens, Mrs Garrett, why ever didn‘t you tell us before ? We had no idea!‘

Then she saved the day, and fully redeemed herself in Lizzie‘s eyes with her next words.

‘Oh, I do apologise, Mrs Garrett! My goodness, you must be a proud mother to have a daughter with a degree!‘

Lizzie could afford to be magnanimous in victory.

‘We ‘ave two,‘ she said. ‘ A mean, two wi‘ letters after their name. Our Jack‘s a Bachelor of Science. ‘E‘s a metallurgist at Vickers‘s Works!‘

Miss Adams, thoroughly abased, reached out an impulsive hand.

‘Mrs Garrett, what can I say ? Two children with degrees! What a splendid achievement – for you and your husband!‘

‘Oh, we‘ve not done yet,‘ said Lizzie, her face resplendent with pride. ‘Our Jimmy‘s at t‘Central School as well, an‘ ‘e‘ll be gooin‘ to t‘University next!‘

The astonishment of Miss Adams knew no bounds.

‘Of course, they were all before my time, weren‘t they ? I know that Elsie is at Secondary School, of course. However did you manage it ? It must have meant great sacrifices for you and your husband.‘

‘Oh, we manage well enough,‘ Lizzie replied. ‘Jim‘s in reg‘lar work, thank God. An‘ then there‘s the extra he gets from t‘Chapil. Caretekkin‘, you know. An‘ now there‘s our Jack an‘ Annie Ruth ‘elpin‘ out.‘

Miss Adams escorted Lizzie to the door.

‘It‘s been a great pleasure, Mrs Garrett. No, a privilege! We shall follow Maurice‘s career with great interest, knowing his background. Really, I‘m delighted, delighted. And truly – impressed! Mrs Garrett, I‘m proud and privileged to have met you!‘

 

For Lizzie the journey home could hardly have been more unlike that of the previous day. She savoured every morsel of the sweets of victory. recalling every detail of the meeting, tasting every tit-bit of the encounter. To speak truth, she had few opportunities to glory in her children‘s achievements, for fear of providing fuel for accusations that she was putting on airs, of becoming ‘stuck up‘ and ‘gettin‘ above ‘erself‘. She was undeniably proud of her brood, and well aware that her neighbours, though fully conscious of their success, had little idea of what it really meant, nor of the cost to her and Jim. It was milk and honey in her mouth to know that in Miss Adams she had met someone who knew not only the worth of the prize but the price that had to be paid for it. And now she found herself longing for the end of the working-day when she could retail every particle of it to Jim. Barely conscious of the occasional greeting from a neighbour, she floated along, luxuriating in the warmth that can always be counted upon to bathe mankind in complete well-being, the glow of self-esteem.

 

Moss, of course, knowing nothing of all this, was astonished and not a little alarmed when Miss Hanson, having been called from the classroom, returned a few moments later and beckoned him to her desk. He was to go to Miss Adams‘s desk in the hall, she said.

Her words filled him on the instant with alarm. He went back at once over the day‘s proceedings, trying to discover whether he might have committed some offence which could merit the ‘stick‘ which, he had been told, was kept in that desk.

But when he presented himself at that Holy of Holies he was reassured at once by the smile that greeted him across the wide top of the headmistress‘s desk.

This time Edith Adams gave her new pupil an altogether longer scrutiny than she had earlier bestowed on him, not without some difficulty that Moss himself had brought about. She, too, now noticed those eyes, and his trick of inclining his head a little and gazing at her gravely from under his brow.

‘Come along, Maurice!‘ she said. ‘Come up here to me! I want you to read to me!‘

He needed no second invitation. He loved reading and could not get enough of it, and he loved to show off his prowess in that department almost as much. As he scrambled up beside the headmistress, she reached out an arm and drew him closer so that he could see the book which she held.

Tentatively at first, for he was still more than a little in awe of her, he began to read. He realized at once that it was just ‘a babby‘s book‘ and read with growing assurance. She took him next through the alphabet, which he reeled off with ill-concealed disdain, and then on to a few passages chosen at random from the school readers on the desk.

When she was satisfied, he stood patiently while she sat brooding for a moment. Then she seemed to collect herself and come to a decision.

‘Maurice,‘ she said, with a suddenness that startled him, ‘do you know your numbers ?‘

He looked blank. Then a tiny flag of doubt and concern showed in the dark eyes.

‘D‘yer mean countin‘, Miss ?‘

She nodded.

‘Oh, A can count to a ‘undred!‘ he said. ‘Moor! Two ‘undred!‘

‘And that‘s all ?‘ she asked. ‘Just counting ?‘

‘A can add up an‘ all,‘ he said patiently, as though puzzled by such ignorance on the part of a grown-up. Then, conceding some reservation, he added,

‘A sometimes gerrit wrong when A‘m carryin‘!‘

She looked doubtful, and he added,

‘A‘m on‘y just startin‘ on take-aways.‘

Again she was silent and he waited uneasily, by no means understanding her preoccupation. Her next question surprised him with its unexpectedness.

‘Maurice, do you know Miss Butler ?‘

He was about to nod, when he remembered Miss Hanson‘s words.

‘Yes, Miss Adams!‘ he said, and pointed to Miss Butler‘s door.

She was about to chide him for pointing, but collected herself in time.

‘I want you to go to Miss Butler and ask her – politely, Maurice – if she will come to see me. And then I want you to stand by Miss Butler‘s desk until she comes back. Can you do that ?‘

Again he was about to nod, and remembered just in time.

‘Yes, Miss Adams!‘

His studded boots scraped on the edge of the platform as he scrambled down, glad to be released from this strange situation. Miss Adams, with a curious expression, almost as though she were on the verge of tears, watched the small figure in the cheap jersey, the thick sensible trousers and the thicker but equally sensible boots, clattering over to Miss Butler‘s door.

He remembered to knock and to wait until Miss Butler herself came to the door, not well pleased to be interrupted in her teaching. She listened to his message, and looked up towards the headmistress as she allowed Moss to enter. But Edith Adams had no eyes for her fellow-teacher at that moment. She was tasting one of the sweets of her calling, the knowledge that a child had been entrusted to her care who might well be exceptional.

A sudden tremor ran through her. She shook herself almost angrily. This is quite ridiculous, she told herself, but with no conviction. This is a good day, she thought. No doubt there would be others. And suddenly she knew beyond all doubt, that her feet had been set upon the right path. She was often prone to misgivings, and there had undoubtedly been times when she had questioned the wisdom of the Lord in dropping her in this backwater called Grimesmoor.

But one day like this could wipe all doubt clean from the slate.

 

Still at something of a loss to know what was going on, Moss stood by Miss Butler‘s desk, occasionally shifting from one foot to the other, gazing about him at these new surroundings, doing his best to ignore the whispered remarks of the children, and trying to avoid contact with their eyes.

On the top of the high cupboard behind Miss Butler‘s desk stood a strange collection of shapes, apparently made of wood, but serving no purpose that he could imagine. He knew neither their names nor whence they came, but he admitted to himself that they looked rather more interesting than the childish things in Miss Hanson‘s room.

Over to his right, against the end wall, a map hung from a wooden rod, with another rod at the bottom end, a yellowed and crazed piece of varnished linen bearing the legend, ‘The Holy Land‘. There was comfort in its familiarity. He had seen one just like it at Sunday School. The room no longer seemed quite so alien.

Round the walls hung small sheets of black paper on which groups of sounds had been chalked. He entertained himself idly for a few moments with ‘oo‘ and ‘cool‘ and ‘pool‘ and the like, until that occupation palled, too.

He sighed, and shifted his feet again, noting that, in spite of the teacher‘s prolonged absence, there were few signs of mischief in the air, apart from some shuffling of feet and the occasional guarded whisper. He recalled, with a stab of concern, that Miss Butler had a reputation for being ‘strict‘.

When the teacher returned, she looked at him for a moment or two with evident curiosity. Then she suddenly smiled, and the usually severe countenance was transformed. Moss, ever ready – given the least encouragement – to respond, smiled in return and decided that Miss Butler, like Miss Hanson, was ‘awright‘.

It was as well he thought so, for he now learned that he had left the care of Miss Hanson for ever, and moved to Miss Butler‘s class, for what reason he could not fathom. From now on he would be in the company of children a full twelve months older than himself. He was sorry to leave Miss Hanson, since he quite liked her, but not at all sorry to leave behind the babyish things they did in her classroom. There had been times during that first day when he had come dangerously close to being bored. Perhaps things would be different in Miss Butler‘s class.

He clattered to the place in the front row to which she directed him, careless now of the buzz of interest which his coming had aroused, and the studs of his sensible boots struck sparks from the iron frame of the desk as he took his seat.

 

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