MOSS

CHAPTER 8

A Fine Volley of Words
The Two Gentlemen of Verona II, iv

Joe Garrett‘s attitude to his younger brother had so far been one of long-suffering rather than the off-hand affection which Moss‘s older brothers and sisters showed. But then, Joe had some small excuse for the odd show of impatience. Quite aside from having had his nose put out of joint by the arrival of the newcomer, and this after he had grown accustomed to being the pampered darling of his parents, he had borne a large share of Moss‘s upbringing during the past five years.

‘Tek our Moss wi‘ yer, our Joe !‘ had become a dreaded sound to his ears, to be followed by a weary buckling-on of ball and chain which the care of a lively youngster must always be to one who loves freedom. It was hardly surprising if there were times when the fruit of his exasperation fell upon the head of the innocent Moss.

For the care of Moss was no light burden. As soon as he was safely past the toddler stage, he discovered the delights of exploration of the streets, the ‘jennels‘ or alleyways, and the backyards of Grimesmoor, and its immediate and eventually not so immediate surroundings. He took to wandering off for hours at a time, not to be missed until Lizzie raised her head from her chores and noticed his absence. Then, if her piercing cries at the entry-end failed to unearth her errant son, it was invariably Joe who was sent off post-haste in search of the happy wanderer. In truth, it was not always the impossible task that it might seem to be, for there was invariably some shopkeeper or some idler holding up the wall of the Three Crowns who could be relied upon for a clue to Moss‘s whereabouts.

It did not take Joe long to decide that there might be a lesser evil. It might, he decided, be rather less of a burden to take Moss along with him on his own jaunts and risk the displeasure of his friends, than face the inevitable command from his mother the moment he returned from school. Moss was not at all averse to the suggestion that he should wait at the school gate every day for his brother, and looked forward eagerly to the occasional excursions with Joe and his friends which always promised the exploration he loved with the added savour of new excitements.

In his efforts to achieve the co-operation of his friends in agreeing to a practice which found little favour in their eyes, Joe had several persuasive arguments. First, they had almost all suffered in like manner from the presence of a younger hanger-on in the family and could well understand and sympathize with Joe‘s exasperation. Next, Joe could lick any one of them with one hand tied behind his back. And finally, every one of the band knew that the commands from Joe‘s mother to find his brother had too often disrupted their jaunts with a popular leader. There were those, too, who knew from their own experience that it was no joke to arrive home as hungry as a hunter, only to be told, in terms similar to those which greeted Joe, ‘Yer can‘t ‘ave any dinner till our Moss is found !‘

However, Joe‘s all but reluctant decision and their own slightly more reluctant acceptance of it proved to have one consequence which they might not have foreseen, and which even Joe found unwelcome. They soon discovered that Moss‘s presence exercized a certain restraint on any devilment they might choose to plan, for fear he should childishly blab it out in the presence of his parents.

For Moss, however, the new régime was very much to his liking, his knowledge of the topography of Grimesmoor and its immediate surroundings being vastly enlarged, and his vocabulary enriched with words that his mother would certainly not care for, which he himself but dimly understood, but which had all the allure of forbidden fruit.

Lizzie was entirely ignorant of this widening of the field of her son‘s grasp of language until it was brought home to her on a visit to the home of the Sunday School Superintendent, a visit which would long be remembered by all present, and which eventually was to pass into the Garrett family folk-lore.

It was an occasion of no little moment. Albert Kirk, the pillar of Hensley Street Chapel‘s Sunday School, was not your vulgar run-of-the-mill working-man. Albert Kirk had his own business, dealing in fents and haberdashery, terms which all understood, but few could accurately define.

Albert Kirk also ran a ‘bob a week‘ check business, an enterprise which consisted of Albert lending the client a pound sterling, which the client then repaid in sums of one shilling every week for twenty-one weeks, the extra week being regarded as the interest on the loan. The average citizen of Grimesmoor naively reckoned this to be an interest of some 5% on the loan, a belief which was a measure of the average citizen‘s lack of sophistication in money matters.

Albert, being a shrewd man of business, knew better, and did not disabuse them. It would have done no one any good, he argued, to know that not only was the actual interest almost 13% per annum, but that he also collected dues by way of discount on everything bought from the tied shops where the checks were spent by his clients. As Moss‘s brother Jack had been known to say, ‘It must be the poor what ‘elps the poor, ‘cos it‘s certainly i’nt the rich‘. It was a practice which the Hebrews – whose works Albert assiduously preached every Sunday, though not noticeably practising during the rest of the week – would have roundly condemned as the worst of usury. But if Albert Kirk ever suffered from the pangs of conscience on this account, there was little outward sign.

It was as well for Albert that the members of the congregation at Hensley Street Chapel were blissfully ignorant of simple mathematics, or he might not have been so widely regarded as a highly-respectable and highly-respected man, and a pillar of the Chapel. No one could say that Albert Kirk himself was ignorant of his own eminent respectability, nor of his own true worth, for he would often pontificate from an Olympian height about the unwisdom of building a house upon sand with no regard whatever for the unwisdom of preaching what one does not practise.

It was, needless to say, an act of great condescension on Albert‘s part to have invited the chapel caretaker‘s wife and the two youngest members of her family to tea, and all the parties to the arrangement were conscious of that fact. If Joe and Moss were less conscious, it could only be put down to childish ignorance of such nice points. It was certainly not for want of telling from their mother.

It was as well, however, that no older members of the family had been included in the invitation, since Jack for one had let it be known that the Superintendent‘s surname might more fittingly have been ‘Shark‘, and that for his own part he would as soon give him a good hiding as a ‘Good morning !‘ This was a view shared by all the more mature offspring, whose wider education had given them a distaste for the sickening hypocrisy behind the so-called religious practices of such as Albert Kirk. As much as anything else it was practices such as these which had persuaded them one and all to abandon regular observance in their ‘teens, despite all their mother‘s pleas.

 

For Joe and Moss, it was necessary for special and unusual arrangements to be made in honour of the great day. Item: They were told that on that afternoon they would be allowed to miss Sunday School. However, their jubilation on hearing the news was short-lived, since they learned in the same moment that they must take a bath instead. They resented this greatly, having both been subjected to this ordeal on the Friday evening. The idea of a soak-and-scrub twice in one week was not at all to their liking. But Lizzie was taking no chances.

The bath over, they were put through the bothersome business of having their heads soaked in vinegar and then raked with a fine-tooth comb. Lizzie heard their protests, but turned a deaf ear, for she had a horror of head-lice, though quite unaware that such a scourge was no respecter of persons, being as likely to visit the rich man in his castle as the poor man at his gate, always depending upon the sort of company he kept. She reasoned with not the slightest compunction that if her peace of mind was to be purchased at the price of a little discomfort on the part of her children, so be it.

Once these preparations were complete and they were both dressed in their itchy Sunday clothes, they were told to sit still, and quietly, until she had finished her own toilet. They were solemnly warned what would happen if they disarranged so much as a hair of their heads or a crease in their suits or, worse still, woke their father from his customary Sunday-afternoon nap in the old rocking-chair.

Had Lizzie been entirely honest, she would have confessed that the honour of taking tea with the Sunday School Superintendent and his wife was hardly worth the long preparation for the event, or the nail-biting anxiety of wondering whether her cack-handed children would disgrace themselves – and her as well, by dropping a piece of Sarah Kirk‘s Crown Derby or by spilling tea on that sacrosanct front-room carpet.

But there it was. The invitation, not lightly given, was not to be lightly declined. All the participants knew that Jim owed his continuing spare-time employment to such as Albert Kirk. It is not always inferiors who are required to tug the forelock; indeed, almost never.

To Lizzie‘s great relief, the meal passed off without mishap. No small miracle, for it was ‘a proper sit-down do‘, with rather more implements to be managed than either Joe or Moss were accustomed to. Tea over, and ‘sided‘ away, Lizzie was heartily glad of Sarah Kirk‘s suggestion that Moss might like to look at a picture-book.

She had noticed her small son looking intently and curiously at Albert Kirk‘s florid face and listening to his Pooh-Bah utterances with the sort of expression that heralded comment or an awkward question. Bur she knew that she could count on his total absorption in a book, especially a picture-book which he had never seen before, and could then bend her eye to the quelling of any hint of mischief from her other son. Fortunately, Joe‘s acquaintance with Albert Kirk‘s eccentric appearance and manner of speech was longer than Moss‘s, so he was less likely to think them worthy of remark.

It must be confessed that the Superintendent‘s ways would have merited comment and even imitation from less observant children than Lizzie‘s. At some time in his career, at a time when he had decided that to become a local preacher might not be altogether bad for business, someone had unwisely advised Albert Kirk of the virtues of elocution, especially that part of it then described as ‘expression‘. It might have been less damaging had he chosen a teacher with professional qualifications, but the size of the fee which was mentioned had alarmed a man who was described by the good folk of Grimesmoor as one who would skin a flea. He had therefore chosen the cheapest tutor he could find, and – ever anxious to get the most value for the least money – had applied himself unstintingly to the tuition he received.

The result was excruciating to every ear but Albert‘s. It took the form of a curious sing-song delivery in which unimportant words were leaned on and the more important given lesser stress. One of the secrets of good diction, he was told, was clear articulation, which apparently consisted of coming down like a butcher‘s cleaver on every dental consonant. When all this was accompanied by a sort of nasal bray as a prelude to every statement the product was something that would have excited remark from duller-witted children than Lizzie‘s.

‘Nyaa !‘ he would begin. ‘Nyaa, Mrs Garrett-ah ! Would-ah yer like a bit-ah more bread-ah and butter ?‘

This practice, perhaps because of its very singularity of utterance, was much admired – though not, it must be said, by all – and eventually helped him to achieve his ambition, and to spread the benefit of his elocution across a yet wider harvest-field. Such an ambition, coupled with so meagre a background, would have been ludicrous in an orator of faultless language; on the lips of Albert Kirk, who still retained all the Hallamside breadth of vowels, only long familiarity with it could rob it of its comic overtones.

Joe, being more accustomed to the sound, paid little heed. For her part, Lizzie continued to pray that the book would prove so absorbing to her small son that it would overcome his earlier and all-too-obvious fascination with the Kirk oratorio. Her prayers proved her undoing, for the Superintendent, observing her lack of attention to his words, ran out of steam.

In the easiest of tete-à-tetes – and this one was far from that – there occur occasional silences.

Into this one Moss dropped a bomb-shell.

He was studying a coloured photogravure of the Charge of the Light Brigade, a spirited rendering of the event in which wild-eyed men, wide-nostrilled horses, and flame and smoke combined to give an effect which doubtless owed more to the imagination of the artist than to actuality.

But it had the publishers‘ desired effect on Moss. He drank in every detail of the scarlet tunics, the flashing sabres, the plunging hooves, the wounded men reeling to the ground, added a large helping of his own active imagination, and cried out into the silence,

‘Gee up, yer buggers !‘

There followed an even deeper silence, an appalled silence. Then Lizzie, her face flaming, caught up her youngest son, and with feverish and halting excuses about the need to be back in time for the evening service, hurried her two sons from the scene as quickly as she decently could.

Had it not been for one sobering thought, Joe would have been highly amused, and would have looked forward with delight to sharing the event with his cronies. But he had a shrewd notion who would get the blame for Moss‘s knowledge of such a word, one which had assuredly never been heard within the Garrett household. His mother could say, without fear of contradiction, that Moss had certainly not heard that word at home.

It was hardly to be wondered at that, from that day, Lizzie began seriously to weigh the unwisdom of allowing Moss to spend quite so much time in his older brother‘s company.

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