Moss stood on tiptoe and jiggled the sneck, until the door gave way and he all but fell into the kitchen.
Annie Ruth was sitting by the fire, reading a book. Moss noticed this departure from custom and practice, and resented it. Without speaking to her, he crossed the kitchen and scrambled up the dark stairway to the bedrooms and the attic above. All three were deserted. It did not strike him as needful to search the front room.
Annie Ruth lifted her head from the book to reprove him for the disturbance he was causing, but he was too quick for her and got his spoke in first.
‘Eigh up, our Annie Ruth,‘ he cried. ‘Wheer‘s me Mam?‘
‘She‘s not here,‘ she said, returning to her book.
‘A can see that !‘ he said. ‘Wheer‘s she gone ?‘
Annie Ruth did not lift her head.
‘She‘s gone to Leeds !‘
He was appalled. It was bad enough that his mother was not in her rightful place at the family hearth, but Leeds! It was intolerable. Worse, it was frightening. She belonged here, not braving the hazards of a distant city.
‘What‘s she gone theer for ?‘ he asked.
Annie Ruth caught the tremor in his voice, looked up at once, and spoke more kindly, though in the carefully practised tones appropriate to her career.
‘It‘s all right, our Moss ! She‘ll be back in the morning !‘
If she thought to comfort him with that reassurance, she was wildly out. For his Mam to be away from home when he got back from school was alarming enough. For her to be away for a whole night was unthinkable.
‘‘Oo‘s gunna get me tea ?‘ he asked, not unreasonably. But he gathered that suitable arrangements had been made for that, so he went on to the next most vital question.
‘When did she go, our Annie Ruth ? An‘ what‘s she gone theer for ?‘
Annie Ruth was impatient to return to her reading.
‘She‘s gone to fetch yer Grandma !‘ she replied.
She could scarcely have thought of a poorer reply with which to stem the flow of his questions.
‘Mi Grandma ? A ‘aven‘t got no Grandma !‘
‘Oh yes, you have,‘ she replied. ‘You‘ve never seen her, that‘s all !‘
‘‘Ave you ?‘ he asked.
‘So I‘m told. Mam says I was five or six. I don‘t remember it, though.‘
He retired to his seat at the table, rested his chin on his fists, and considered this earth-shaking turn of events. A Grandma he‘d never seen ? It was intriguing. But if it meant that his mother must be away from home when he got back from school and, worse still, absent for a whole night, he thought he could manage to get along without such relatives.
All his efforts to learn more, to discover how he could possibly come to have a Grandma of whose existence he had so far been unaware, met with failure. He had hoped that, in the absence of Mam, the weekly soap-and-scrub might be forgotten, but Annie Ruth had been carefully briefed and, like her mother, had a proper sense of duty. All his snivelling, and even downright defiance, availed him nothing. The large galvanized-zinc bath was brought out, the water heated in the copper and ladled out into the bath with the lading-can, cooled with water from the tap, and all was ready.
But no sooner was he undressed and soaking than there came an unwelcome and embarrassing interruption. There was a knock at the door, the sneck was lifted, and the voice of Maggie Willett was heard through the crack.
‘Are yer theer ?‘
With a proper regard for her small brother‘s outraged modesty, Annie Ruth quickly drew the towel-covered clothes-horse from in front of the fire, and arranged it, together with the rocking-chair, in front of the bath, and signalled Moss with a finger to her lips to keep silence until Mrs Willett had departed.
But that was an event which depended on Mrs Willett‘s decision, and there it seemed destined to fail. Maggie Willett was much too interested in the intriguing reasons for Lizzie‘s absence to cut her visit short, and Moss‘s bath-water cooled as she warmed to her subject.
For Annie Ruth, Mrs Willett‘s probing questions were doubly embarrassing. She could not know, though she could make a shrewd guess, how much of the reasons for her absence her mother would want revealing , and she suspected it was much less than Maggie Willett wanted to know. She also knew only too well how every one of Maggie‘s questions and her own hesitant answers were being digested behind the clothes-horse. There was not the slightest doubt that Maggie‘s avid interest would be as nothing to Moss‘s, but she could think of no polite way to bring an end to the questioning.
Moss, too, was torn. He was weighing the discomfort of sitting still and silent in the rapidly-cooling water against his desire to know more of the mystery surrounding the person of this new Grandma.
His restraint went unrewarded. Maggie‘s many questions and Annie Ruth‘s guarded answers left him little wiser.
‘A reckon she‘ll be a bit of a ‘andful for yer Mam, eh ?‘ said Maggie.
Annie Ruth put on her best prunes and prism voice.
‘Well, she‘s getting on, you know !‘
‘Oh, A didn‘t mean that !‘ said Maggie. ‘No, A meant t‘other thing. Yer know ! Yer Mam were tellin‘ me – !‘
Annie Ruth made a non-committal sound.
‘A mean,‘ Maggie went on, ‘yer Mam can‘t be doin‘ wi‘ that sooart o‘ thing, can she now ? What wi‘ t‘chapel an‘ all ?‘
Another sound from Annie Ruth.
‘Mind you,‘ said Maggie, ‘she‘ll not find it all that easy to get ‘er ‘ands on it ‘ere, will she ? Yer Grandma, A mean – !‘
But what she really did mean, Moss was fated not to learn, and when she finally took her departure the mystery was still unresolved. He was now more determined than ever to find the key.
However, it‘s an ill wind that blows no one any good, and Maggie‘s visit had done Moss an unlooked-for good turn. Annie Ruth had not the heart to condemn her small brother to remain shivering in the bath while she heated more water. So he was taken out and rubbed with a warm towel until the blood once more flowed freely through his veins, and that was the end of his ordeal by water for that week.
He had pictured his new-found Grandma as resembling the old ladies in such books as ‘The Water Babies‘ – apple-cheeked, roly-poly of figure, and benevolent to a fault. He quite looked forward to making her acquaintance.
The reality was altogether different.
She was a character out of ‘Grimm‘s Fairy Tales‘ rather than ‘The Water Babies‘, gaunt and frail, her skin cracked and sallow, her hair white and wispy, and her nose all but touching her chin. Moss‘s disappointment was keen.
It might have been better had his parents taken him into their confidence, but it was not an age when such confidences between parents and children were thought needful or much encouraged. If they had told him in plain, round terms where she had been all this time and what she was doing here now it is probable that he would have registered the news without much concern and moved on to more interesting matters. But the silence and the meaning glances which surrounded the coming of this stranger would have aroused the curiosity of a boy far less imaginative than Moss. In consequence, his own speculations were far from the truth of the matter, and inevitably far more vivid.
What he quite failed to understand was a new and altogether unwelcome air of constraint between his mother and father, which seemed to coincide with the arrival of his grandmother. His mother went about her tasks in a tight-lipped silence and with an air of preoccupation far removed from her usual demeanour, and with her voice no longer lifted in song. And the moment his father appeared she seemed to busy herself in quite needless chores, as though idle hands at such a time were not to be borne.
Moss‘s father was silent, too, with a grimness of feature that Moss noted with not a little alarm and with a determination not to put it to any sort of test. Something told him that here was a sleeping dog best left to lie.
Little by little, however, his conviction that Grandma was the root and cause of the trouble between his mother and father seemed to be confirmed. And it did not take him long to see that the duties his mother carried out for Grandma were performed as such duties sometimes are, scrupulously but with little enthusiasm.
He noted, too, that his father was more than usually solicitous towards Mam, and that she seemed not to care for these attentions. It was like living with one of those volcanoes he had read about, that might erupt at any moment’ He wisely kept his own counsel and out of the way of both of them.
But, being Moss, his curiosity could not long be contained. He decided to quiz Grandma, to see what could be discovered there.
The first opportunity came on a wet day that Autumn, a day when to leave the house was out of the question, so that Moss must needs kick his heels and grow savage with boredom.
‘‘Ere, our Moss,‘ said his mother, ‘yer can mek yerself useful for a change, instead o‘ sittin‘ theer mitherin‘ ! Goo‘n read one o‘ yer books to yer Grandma !‘
He was about to make the routine protests when it dawned on him that the idea had possibilities. He rummaged among the slithering pile of books on the sideboard until he found one which he felt might be suitable, and went into the front room where Grandma‘s bed had been put up.
She was dozing, with her nut-cracker head lolling to one side, and the sound of his entry failed to stir her. He waited patiently by the door for what seemed to him an unconscionable time until at last her eyes opened.
When she saw that she had company she reached out a trembling hand like a claw and eased herself with much groaning into a more upright position on the pillow.
‘‘Oo‘s that ?‘ she asked, peering at him. ‘Oh, it‘s thee, lad !‘
‘Me Mam says as A‘ve got to come an‘ read to yer, Grandma !‘ he said.
‘Oh, she did, did she ? A‘m surprised she gi‘es me a thought at all ! Aye well, A‘ve nowt better to do, A reckon. Come on in !‘
Moss settled himself in the chair beside the bed, taking care to keep a respectful distance between himself and this stranger, about whom he was still not altogether easy in his mind. The old lady pursed her lips, her old mouth resembling a walnut too long in store.
‘What yer gunna read then ?‘ she asked.
Moss help up the book for her to see, and the old lady cackled.
‘Nay, lad, tha‘rt wastin‘ thi time showin‘ me thi book !‘
Moss‘s face was a study. The old lady cackled again, and began to cough weakly. It was some time before she seemed able to speak, and he grew alarmed, and wondered whether he should fetch his mother.
‘Dun‘t tha know, lad ?‘ she whispered at last. ‘A can‘t read ! Niver could !‘
Moss was thunder-struck. He considered the astonishing news for a moment, and came to the conclusion that her earlier grin supplied the clue.
‘Yer kiddin‘, Grandma !‘
The old lady grinned again.
‘Nay, A‘m not, lad ! Nob‘dy niver learnt me !‘
Moss‘s amazement knew no bounds. He had supposed that everyone in the world could do something so easy, if not before starting school, then at least not long afterwards.
‘Would yer like me to show yer, Grandma ?‘ he asked.
The old lady cackled with glee, and seemed about to go off into another feeble paroxysm of coughing. At length, she said,
‘Dusta think tha could, lad ? Nay, nay ! A reckon A‘m an owd bitch to be learnin‘ new tricks like yon !‘
The unmentionable word gave Moss a twinge of unease. If his mother should come in and hear that sort of language he would be packed off at once, he knew. And he was beginning to enjoy himself.
‘It wouldn‘t tek yer long, Grandma !‘ he said.
His words seemed to sober the old lady, and her face grew still.
‘A reckon as A shan‘t have that much time, love ! A shan‘t be troublin‘ anybody much longer, A expect – an‘ A shan‘t be needin‘ to read wheer A‘m gooin‘, any road !‘
Moss did not much care for the turn the conversation was taking, and his grandmother seemed to sense it, and changed the subject.
‘Well, goo on then, lad ! Read thi book !‘
Moss began to read, but he found her a poor listener for she dozed fitfully, occasionally startling him with grunts and distorted fragments of speech quite unrelated to the matter of his reading. At last, when she appeared to have fallen fast asleep, he slipped from the chair and began to make his way to the door.
She woke at once.
‘Are tha gooin‘ then ?‘ she asked weakly.
‘A thowt yer were asleep, Grandma !‘
For a moment, it seemed that she might slip away again, but with an effort she roused herself and said,
‘It‘s not thy fault, love !‘
Then she seemed to brighten, and said,
‘But A‘ll tell thi summat as tha can do fer thi Grandma – !‘
Moss returned to the bed.
‘Yes, Grandma ?‘
‘Dosta think as tha could get me a drop o‘ meths ?‘
‘What‘s that, Grandma ?‘
The old lady considered the question for a moment.
‘Well, tha sees, it‘s like this. Now an‘ then, A gerra pain ‘ere, like – ‘ and she vaguely indicated the region of her stomach. ‘An‘ then, dosta see, A ‘ave to ‘ave a drop o‘ medicine – !‘
‘An‘ is that what yer want, Grandma ? That what yer called it – ?‘
‘Aye, lad, meths ! A‘ve got to tek a drop of it in me ‘All‘s Wine ‘ere !‘
‘Awright, Grandma,‘ he said. ‘A‘ll ask me Mam !‘
The old woman reached out a quivering claw.
‘Nay, nay, tha moan‘t do that, love ! Thi mother‘s got enough on ‘er plate, A reckon. Nay, A want thi to get me two penn‘orth from t‘chemist‘s. There‘s no call ter goo botherin‘ thi Mam !‘
She scrabbled beneath her pillow until she unearthed her purse, opened it and took out a few coppers.
‘‘Ere th‘art,‘ she said. ‘An‘ tha can ‘ave a penny fer thisen !‘
A penny ! A whole week‘s pocket money ! He needed no second bidding and was making for the door when she called him back.
‘Just a minute, love ! Tha‘ll need to find summat ter purrit in ! As tha got a medicine bottle ?‘
‘A‘ve got one as A use fer me liquorice water, Grandma,‘ he replied.
‘Champion ! Not a word to thi Mam, mind, else A shall cop it for spoiling thi wi‘ pennies !‘
His mouth effectively sealed, Moss found the bottle and was off.
But his errand was fruitless. News travelled as fast in Grimesmoor as anywhere else, and the chemist had a shrewd suspicion that this particular errand, coming as it did from the Garrett household, would not bear the light.
‘Who wants this methylated spirit then ?‘ he asked. ‘Is it for your mother ?‘
‘No, it‘s not,‘ Moss replied in all innocence. ‘It‘s fer mi Grandma !‘
The pharmacist shook his head, and handed back the bottle.
‘I‘m sorry, Moss. Tell your grandmother I can‘t serve methylated spirits to boys of your age. I‘m afraid your mother will have to come for it.‘
Moss returned with the tidings, and was not well pleased when the old lady took back all the coppers he had been given. After all, he reasoned, I did run the errand. It wasn‘t his fault the chemist wouldn‘t give him the stuff.
He went to return his liquorice bottle to the cupboard, and this time was less careful to avoid his mother‘s eagle eye.
‘What yer got theer, our Moss ?‘ she asked, her look dark with suspicion.
She had the truth out of him with practised ease, snatched the bottle from his hand, and marched into the front room, slamming the door behind her. Through the closed door Moss could hear the familiar sounds of his mother reading the Riot Act, but this time to Grandma.
Nor was this the end of the matter. Lying in his bed that night, Moss heard voices raised in anger, culminating with the sound of his mother‘s weeping, a sound which caused him to pull the bed-clothes over his head and to cover his ears.
But the events of the night were not over. Much later he woke to sounds of comings and goings downstairs, and could have sworn he heard someone using the front door. It must be something important, he told himself, and on that thought drifted to sleep again.
When he clattered downstairs that morning there was a noticeably subdued atmosphere at the table. He put it down to last night‘s quarrel, for his mother seemed strained and withdrawn, and he remembered unhappily her earlier tears.
He was about to open the door of the front room to greet his Grandma when she rose and laid a restraining hand on his arm. He saw at once that her face looked strange and that her lower lip was trembling.
‘Don‘t goo in theer, love !‘ she said. ‘Not today !‘
‘Why not, Mam ?‘
Lizzie took her small son by his shoulders.
‘Yer Grandma‘s gone, son !‘
‘Gone ?‘ he cried. ‘Gone wheer ?‘
She reached behind her for the chair.
‘She‘s gone to be wi‘ Jesus, love !‘
It was some time before he grasped the enormous fact that Grandma really had gone, but what he quite failed to understand was the reason for his mother‘s distress.
The door-sneck lifted, and he turned his head.
It was Dad.
He, too, looked strange and distraught. But something else had changed. His mother rose unsteadily to her feet and ran to him. His father‘s arms reached out and around her, and Moss was swept by an enormous wave of relief.
Everythin‘s awright again, he told himself. An‘ Grandma‘s gone to be wi‘ Jesus, so she‘s awright as well.