MOSS

CHAPTER 9

A Strutting Player
Troilus & Cressida I, iii

But to decide is one thing, and to act quite another, and Moss might have gone on enjoying the company of Joe and his cronies had it not been for a traditional festival, one which came during the Christmas holiday at the end of Moss‘s first term at school, and which provided for Joe a happy issue out of all his afflictions, at least where his small brother was concerned.

‘Derby Tuppin‘ was an ancient custom, a lingering relic of the antique rituals of the Mummers – though few of the original members of those companies would have recognized the ceremony which Joe and his mates were about to celebrate.

The traditional companies having long vanished from the scene, their observances were now left to bands of boys, forming groups of strolling players for this one occasion in the year, and disbanding as soon as the ceremony was over and the spoils had been counted.

There were many parents who, for good and sufficient reasons of their own, put an interdict on such goings-on, and many were the groups of Derby Tuppers that broke up in wrangling and disorder when some member of the cast was flatly forbidden to dress up in the traditional garb, blacken his face with soot from the fire-back, and sally out on the morn of Boxing Day to take part in the ancient rites.

So Joe Garrett‘s small troupe counted themselves lucky indeed when Christmas Day arrived with no reported falling-off in the expected attendance on the morrow. As the acknowledged leader, Joe had opted for the part of Beelzebub, and no one challenged his right to cast that and the other rôles. So with due care he selected his assistant, Devil Doubt, and the supernumeraries, and the chosen few then prayed for a fine Boxing Day and generous neighbours.

The next day did indeed dawn fine and clear with an edge of frost in the air, but happily not enough to persuade a ‘nesh‘ parent to keep her ewe lamb at home. The appointed hour of eleven o‘clock arrived with all but two gathered in, only Devil Doubt and one of the walk-on parts having so far failed to put in an appearance. But no one yet was anxious. At that time boys of that age were often burdened with the title of ‘family slipper‘ on account of the number of times they were required to slip and fetch some article of shopping, or even a younger brother or sister, and punctuality at any event was not to be expected.

The minutes passed, and Joe began to chafe. The first dread signs of dissatisfaction were becoming evident among his fellow-players.

Another five minutes. Then, with Joe‘s powers of persuasion beginning to show signs of wearing thin, the figure of Devil Doubt came into view.

Joe‘s heart sank. There was something in the sag of the newcomer‘s shoulders that boded no good.

‘What‘s up wi‘ thee ?‘ he cried.

The newcomer hesitated before replying, hating the message he brought and fearing what Joe might do to the messenger. Then, as they crowded round him, he blurted out,

‘A can‘t ‘ave me face blacked !‘

Joe was scornful in defeat.

‘Tha what ? ‘Oo says so ?"

The other‘s humiliation drove him to a desperate defiance.

‘It‘s me Mam ! A can come, she says. But A can‘t ‘ave me face blacked !‘

Joe could see authority slipping away from him, but he was not giving in without a fight.

‘Are tha freetened o‘ thi mother then ? Goo on ! Don‘t be so bloody mardy ! Goo‘n get some soot from t‘ fire-back !‘

But this time the would-be Devil Doubt was less in fear of Joe than of the wrath to come.

‘A can‘t ! She telled me Dad ! ‘E were even gunna stop me comin’ at all !‘

There was silence for a few moments while they all considered this facer. Their looks said as clearly as words that the whole enterprise was now in jeopardy. Devil Doubt was not the only one to have been threatened with unmentionable things if he dared to blacken his face, so there was no one willing to fill the shoes of the defector.

The fallen demon said hesitantly,

‘A‘ll do it wi‘out me face blacked, if yer like !‘

But Joe had the desire for perfection which ran in the Garrett blood. He was not having any weak link in the chain of his drama.

‘Don‘t talk so bloody daft ! Goo on, bugger off ! Thi Dad can ‘ave thi ! We‘re not ‘avin‘ no Devil Doubt wi‘out ‘is face blacked !‘

The disappointed Thespian did his best to get Joe to relent, and even tried to persuade some of the rest to plead his cause, but without effect. Joe knew full well that their support was being given to the luckless Devil Doubt only because they feared that they themselves might be drafted into the rôle. He was not to be swayed. Give way jus‘ once, he thought, an‘ next year we‘ll not be able to gerra Devil Doubt at all. So all men fear the establishing of a precedent.

Seeing that Joe was not to be moved, the sacked member shambled off, all but weeping with disappointment, his Boxing Day – to which no doubt he had looked forward eagerly – in ruins around him.

But Joe was now spiked on the horns of a dilemma. How to put on a Derby Tup without a Devil Doubt ? And if he couldn‘t find some solution, and quickly, how to prevent the members of his troupe deserting to other companies with a better hope of survival ? Already there were mutterings around him.

‘Awreight !‘ he said. ‘ We‘ll do wi‘out ‘im !‘

The others looked at him in amazement. ‘Derby Tuppin‘ wi‘out a Devil Doubt ? It was heresy. Surely Joe must have a Devil Doubt up his sleeve, or some idea of recruiting one.

But they all knew how difficult it was to raise a company at all in the face of so much competition and unpredictable parental censure – at this late hour well nigh impossible. The prospects of finding even another walk-on supporter now were poor indeed. What hope of finding a Devil Doubt ? On the other hand, there might be other groups in better shape. Perhaps they might welcome a few recruits ?

‘Oo tha gunna get then ?‘ said one, before deciding to quit.

And then, when all seemed lost, Joe had an inspiration. He hesitated for a moment and then played his last desperate card.

‘A‘ll fetch our Moss !‘

There was, as he had feared, an instant hoot of derision. Moss ? Moss Garrett ? A babby ? They began to give immediate signs of decamping. Joe hastened to convert them.

‘It‘s awreight ! ‘E knows it ! Every word ! An‘ A‘ll soon gerr ‘is face blacked !‘

It took all his skills in diplomacy, but in the end, and not without much evident reluctance, they agreed. All that was left was for Joe to fetch the young recruit. He remembered at the last moment to insist on their all accompanying him, suspecting that once his back was turned they might all desert.

On the way home he put a brave face on it, but secretly he was much troubled by misgivings. If an eleven-year-old could fail to win approval what chance was there of his getting approval from his mother to allow Moss to take part ? There was only one solution. Strategy and silence were called for.

Fortunately for his purpose, his mother was deep in conversation with Maggie Willett when he arrived at Fern Street, having not seen her neighbour since Christmas Eve, and each therefore needing to tell the other how the festivities had gone.

Joe found his brother deep in a book. He put his mouth close to Moss‘s ear and whispered, ‘Come outside, our Moss ! A‘ve summat to tell thi !‘

Quickly he explained. Moss, his dark eyes alight with excitement, was only too ready to fall in with Joe‘s plan. There remained only the problem of the make-up, and here again Joe met with no resistance at all.

‘Wait theer !‘ he said, and slipped into the kitchen, where he made a pretence of rummaging among the objects on the mantelpiece with its collection of domestic trivia.

His mother, suddenly aware of his silence – always a bad sign in her experience – turned sharply from her gossip.

‘What d‘yer want, our Joe ?‘

He had to think quickly.

‘A – A can‘t find me mouth organ !‘ he replied. ‘T‘one as A got fer Christmas !‘

Partly reassured, his mother returned to the conversation. Quickly Joe reached up inside the chimney with his free hand and wiped it across the sooty flue. Then,

‘A‘ve gorrit !‘ he cried, holding up the harmonica in the other hand, and was outside before his mother could comment.

The eager Moss, dancing from one foot to the other in his impatience, was only too ready to have his face blacked, and the dark eyes soon gleamed even more brightly against the sooty cheeks. Joe picked up his own props, the club and the dripping-pan, and stood back to consider the effect of his brother‘s make-up.

The Sunday suit was hardly right for the role, but it would have to serve. To try to get Moss a change of clothing now would merely invite enquiry and possible discovery, the result of which would be certain prohibition. He grabbed Moss‘s hand and dragged him off to join the rest.

He was only just in time. Without the moral support of their leader, the band was on the point of dispersal. They jibbed at Moss‘s incongruous costume, but they had to agree that his face was satisfactorily Nubian. Joe thought it best to get the show on the road before their mutterings turned to mutiny, and they moved off to their first port of call.

Outside in the street, the Grimesmoor Silver Temperance Band was rendering with more enthusiasm than musical expertise a heavy-footed version of ‘Christians, Awake !‘ – a superfluous and ironic message to the Christians in the neighbourhood, most of whom had already been up some two or three hours, and some of whom were even now awaiting impatiently the opening of the door of the Three Crowns. Joe calculated that the band‘s collecting bag might already have drained what local charity there was, but that at any moment the members would be succumbing to thirst, for the word ‘Temperance‘ in their title had long lost its significance. The trick was to find out which streets the band had not yet visited and make a start there. Besides, he reasoned, it would be politic to put some distance between Moss and his mother before some neighbour or family friend saw Moss‘s face.

Three streets away, in a slightly more prosperous part of Grimesmoor than their own, Joe‘s troupe of strolling players edged into a backyard and took up position. Moss, as the smallest, was pushed well to the front; Joe, as the leader, directed the singing.

As A were gooin‘ to Derby upon a market day.

A met the finest Tupsy as ever were fed on ‘ay,

Singin‘ fay dee, fay dee

Fiddle falay deeay !

The first awkwardness now over, they were all singing with more confidence.

The butcher that killed the Tupsy was up to the knees in blood;

The man that ‘eld the basin was washed away in the flood;

Singin‘ fay dee, fay dee

Fiddle falay deeay !‘

Now Joe stepped forward, brandishing Lizzie‘s copper-stick as the nearest thing he had been able to find to Beelzebub‘s traditional club, and in the other hand the customary dripping-pan. In ringing tones he proclaimed,

Here come I, Beelzebub ! Over my shoulder I carry my club;

In my ‘and a drippin‘ pan! An‘ I think myself a jolly old man;

A jolly old man I seem to be;

I‘ve got two sons as big as me;

When one comes in, the other goes out,

An‘ ‘ere comes little Devil Doubt !‘

Moss, entirely green in such thespian matters and carried away by the enchantment of it all, was blissfully unaware that this was his cue, and Joe was obliged to drag him forward. He collected himself, and began in a piping treble,

‘Here come I, little Devil Doubt,

Wi‘ me pockets turned inside out;

Money I want, and money I crave,

If you don‘t give me money

I‘ll sweep you to your grave !‘

But drama needs stage management, and here the haste with which the show had been mounted revealed a breakdown in Joe‘s management, for Moss lacked the traditional broom, the badge of Devil Doubt‘s office.

‘Neer mind !‘ said Joe, in a stage whisper. ‘Gerron wi‘ it !‘ And now, with the end in sight, the company sang yet more lustily in ragged unison,

 

‘And now our song is ended, we ‘ave no moor to say;

So please will yer give us a Christmas box to send us all away;

Singin‘ fay dee, fay dee

Fiddle falay deeay !‘

And then, a trifle unseasonably, but in confirmation of the request they added in chorus,

‘Appy New Year ! ‘Appy New Year !

Plenty o‘ money and nothin‘ to fear !

A ‘orse ‘n a gig

An‘ a good fat pig

To serve yer all next year !‘

And then, quite out of season and by way of finale,

‘Christmas is comin‘ ! The goose is gettin‘ fat !

Please purra penny in the old man‘s ‘at;

If y‘aven‘t gorra penny a ha‘penny‘ll do;

If y‘aven‘t gorra ha‘penny

God bless you !‘

And now it was time to knock on every door in the yard, and thrust forward the collecting tin. And here Joe had his second inspired idea, one destined to vindicate him fully in the eyes of every one of the company, for, instead of taking the tin himself, he pushed it into Moss‘s hand and shoved him forward.

Moss was nothing loath. And there was more than one housewife who opened the door with the words, ‘Not today, luv !‘ on her lips, caught the gleam of those dark eyes in the sooty face, and opened both her heart and her purse.

When the Mummers decided that their performances must come to an end, since to stay out longer was to court certain trouble at home, they counted their takings. Their delight and Moss‘s amazement knew no bounds when it was revealed that they had collected no less than two shillings and threepence, a princely sum by any standards.

Joe shared Moss‘s gratification but his own was short-lived. In the general rejoicing he quite failed to notice that Moss had decided that such splendid tidings of comfort and joy would not keep and had set off for home to be the harbinger.

It was too late to call him back, and Joe‘s half-formed plan to spirit him back into the house and to remove the evidence was now in jeopardy. Grabbing his share of the spoils, he set off in pursuit.

But joy had lent wings to Moss‘s studded heels. As Joe rounded the corner by the entry-end he saw his mother waiting for him with a face like a thunder-cloud. He abandoned his few and meagre inventions and decided that he had no choice but to brave it out.

‘Oh, theer y‘are, our Joe ! Jus‘ you wait, young man ! Jus‘ you wait till yer Dad ‘ears o‘ this ! ‘E‘ll give yer "Derby Tuppin" !‘

Joe was conscious of some relief. Meeting his father‘s displeasure would be bad enough, but nothing like bearing the full brunt of his mother‘s. But she had not done yet.

‘Jus‘ look at ‘is best suit ! Jus‘ look at it, will yer ? Yer little pig, as ever A should call yer such a name !‘

He knew now the full measure of his mother‘s wrath. The epithet ‘little pig‘ on her lips was near-blasphemy to her, reserved only for those occasions when she had lost all control, or the offence was heinous beyond words. Wisely he kept his counsel, until the storm should abate.

The subsequent ‘tellin‘ off‘ from his father was no picnic either, for where his mother could terrify with the white heat of her wrath, his father could freeze with the coldness of his contempt for such misdeeds. It was a sorely-chastened Joe who, by his father‘s command, went to bed early and fasting that Boxing Day evening, just as the rest of the family was gathering round the piano in the front-room for the customary sing-song.

Joe had not appreciated before how much he enjoyed these evenings, and to be excluded on this special occasion was gall and wormwood to his soul. As he lay dry-eyed in his bed and heard the strains of ‘Come to the Fair‘, ‘O Who Will o‘er the Downs so Free ?‘ and ‘Cwm Rhondda‘ rorted out with the concerted power of the Garrett lungs, he felt himself a much-abused young man, and at last drifted to sleep, vowing never to take Moss anywhere with him again, not if his refusal got him a damn good ‘idin‘.

But the vow was superfluous. Lizzie had already made up her mind that in future there would be no more such excursions. After this, she told herself, our Moss isn‘t goin‘ anywheer wi‘ our Joe again, choose ‘ow much ‘e wants to tek ‘im.

Which merely goes to show how, where such belief is concerned, near-relatives can be far distant from the truth.

 

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