The pulpit that dominated one end of Hensley Street Chapel was gone, apparently buried beneath tiers of benches which reached almost to the roof and which blotted out the large Alpha and Omega adorning the wall behind the pulpit. Not that their absence would be much noticed or regretted; in choosing those strange symbols, the architects may have over-reached themselves a little, for few of the congregation had the slightest notion of what the two symbols meant.
Moss was enchanted by the novel sight of the serried ranks of the benches, and by the revolutionary change in the layout of the chapel.
‘What‘s it for, Dad ?‘ he asked.
His father explained that every year the chapel celebrated the anniversary of the day of its founding with a ceremony known as the Anniversary Sermons, when the whole congregation, old and young alike, joined in services of thanksgiving for another faithful year spent in the service of the Lord and in receipt of his bounty. It seemed to occur to no one that a careful observer would have been hard put to it to find much evidence of bounty in those years of the lean kine.
‘But what‘s them things for ?‘ asked Moss, pointing to the tiers of benches, and from his father‘s reply understood why the ceremonies were called ‘Sermons’. He had thought the performance might be something like the chapel ‘Concerts‘ which he thoroughly enjoyed for the way they provided a chance for the assembled congregation to show off their talents on the stage. There might have been some similarity between sermons and concerts, he thought, but for the one obvious drawback in the word ‘sermons‘. He had had more than enough experience of these performances, and cared little for them.
But, as his father went on, it slowly became clear to him that this new event actually did promise to provide an opportunity for the minister to get another collection of sermons off his chest, and there were already rather too many such opportunities of that kind for his liking. It was all beginning to look rather less exciting.
And then, in the next moment his father let slip the added information that only the girls would be making use of the benches and Moss’s suspicions were confirmed. He lost interest at once.
However, when the time came for him to attend his first Anniversary Sermons he had to admit that it was something of an eye-opener. He had heard in the school playground a deal of talk among the girls about ‘mi new frock fer t‘Sermons‘, but most of it had gone over his head, such matters not being of the kind to interest anyone but ‘lasses‘. If he noted them at all, it was only to marvel that a topic of such triviality could excite so much chatter.
But the event itself caused him to modify his first impressions, and gave him a better understanding of the reasons for the pink cheeks, the bubbling excitement and the near-hysteria.
On the first morning of the Anniversary Sermons the Garrett family members were early in their places, for Jim himself must needs be in attendance earlier than all the rest of the congregation and the participants who were to occupy the benches. One of his duties was to marshal the girls into their appointed places on the benches, a job which called for all the careful planning and organization of a sheepdog trials event. The rest of the family must needs, therefore, put up with a lengthy wait before the rest of the congregation began to assemble.
This was never anything but an unpalatable taste of tedium for a family of such active minds, and for Moss it was all but impossible to digest it. More than once Lizzie was obliged to warn her youngest son of what he might look forward to when the service was over if he did not learn to sit still.
When she could spare a little time from exercising her eagle eye upon Moss, she sat back to contemplate her brood with pardonable pride. Yer‘ve got to admit it, she said to herself, they‘re a ‘andsome lot. And it gave her no small satisfaction to know from the covert glances of those around her that she was by no means the only one to think so.
She was drawn to this thought by the sight of her first-born, Jack, in his smart blue serge, and only here tonight, so he said, out of deference to her wishes. However, Lizzie more than half suspected that the anticipated presence of Annie Allsopp on the platform might have more to do with it than any desire to please his mother. At twenty-eight, she thought, ‘e can‘t be expected to live at ‘ome much longer.
Happily, Annie Ruth was also contributing to the family coffers, and soon Jimmy, too, would be out of university. Elsie, soon to start there, would then be the only child of an age to earn who would still need their support.
Lizzie knew full well, as did all her sensible kind, that, even with such a large family as her own, there would be but a few years of their lives when she and Jim could enjoy a few comforts from the fruits of their family‘s earnings. They, more than most parents, had deliberately delayed the onset of that brief period, and in doing so had ensured that it would be even shorter, by their determination to see that every child of theirs got all the education it could soak up. Now, all too soon, they must accept that Jack would soon be flying the coop, and that Annie Ruth – already the target of many sighs and glances – would not be far behind.
All this posed many a problem in the management of a fluctuating income, never very large, Lizzie knew only too well that had she and Jim sat down to calculate the possibility of sending their children to university, ordinary prudence might have counselled against it. But, for her, and certainly in the matter of an education that she herself had not enjoyed, prudence was merely another name for timidity. She wouldn‘t have had it any other way, and she loved her man dearly for his staunch support of her own fierce desire to give her family the very best in the teeth of all those who advised caution.
There was a stir of activity over by the organ-loft, and Jim appeared, leading a gaggle of chattering girls, giggling and self-conscious in their new frocks. First came the infants, who needed to be helped up the steep ascent to their heaven near the roof. Not a few of them found this an anxious experience, and needed support from the older girls until they could grow accustomed to those dizzy heights and to the novelty of it all.
Moss, now wide-eyed with wonder, at last began to grasp what his elders saw in these Anniversary Sermons. His whole being responded to the strange and dazzling spectacle of the rows of benches, covered for the occasion in a maroon-coloured baize, and now slowly disappearing beneath a shifting mass of white.
When the last of the older accolytes had taken their places on the lowest benches of all, there was a an expectant pause which gave place to a murmur as the figure of the choirmaster appeared. Harold Roper, who doubled as organist with his choirmasterly duties, knew all about making an entrance, and he waited until his proxy had taken his seat on the organ-bench before he himself stepped forward and mounted the podium. He ran his eyes slowly over the ranks before him, cast a last look round the congregation as though to assure himself that they too were giving their full attention, and finally turned back to face the sea of white before him.
The chatter of so many female voices gradually died, as one girl after another nudged a neighbour and nodded in his direction. And at last every eye was upon him. He gave the now quiescent rows one last sweeping survey, tapped the desk before him with his baton, and raised both arms.
At once there was a sound like a long sigh, and the ranks of white rose to their feet.
It was like nothing so much as the breaking of a great wave, and Moss, quite transfixed by the splendour of it all, had to be sharply reminded by his mother, with a tap on his well-brushed head, that he was expected to stand, too. He scrambled down from his seat on the pitch-pine pew bench, took his mother‘s hand as the minister and his guests entered, and prepared to enjoy himself.
Only two items on the programme threatened to spoil that enjoyment, the first because it was long without being at all interesting, the second because it promised to be even longer, and even less interesting than the first. Ironically, both by their very nature seemed eminently suitable for a religious occasion, since both provided a foretaste of eternity.
Moss was to become better acquainted over the years with the custom of extempore prayer in the nonconformist church and to develop a hearty distaste for it, despite the fact that it was widely acclaimed as a histrionic performance for which some ministers and local preachers enjoyed a reputation.
The Reverend Albert Walters was of that number.
He prayed for the world, for our beloved country, for the King and Queen and all their ministers, their servants and their subjects, for the lands across the sea and especially for those lands where the blessing of Thy word has not come down on the souls of those who dwell in darkness, for missions abroad and missions at home, for seed-time and harvest and all the many blessings pouring down upon us from Thy bounteous hands, for all who labour in field or factory in the service of their fellow-men, and especially for all those whose labours are unseen but without whose loving service our lives would be the poorer, for the police who guard our homes and our lives, for all doctors and nurses, for firemen and ambulance men, for all those who go down to the sea in ships and occupy their business in great waters, for those in peril on the sea, for all who lie on beds of pain and for those who in love and devotion minister unto them (overlooking the fact that they had already had a mention), for those who mourn the loss of loved ones that they may find succour and comfort and a happy relief from their affliction and their sorrow, and so on and so on – and all without a single note to keep the speaker on course, for it was a well-rehearsed, oft-repeated, and entirely predictable party-piece. If the attention of the Lord was not drawn to every creature who walked His earth it was not for want of a few reminders from the Reverend Albert Walters.
Or, rather, the Reverend A. Livingstone Walters, for the minister had adopted a practice which was rapidly growing, a practice more honoured in the breach than the observance. It consisted of reducing the first name to a single letter and giving the second a fuller, and preferably more sonorous sound. And if that second name had not been included at the baptism or a too-ordinary name supplied, then invention had been known to make good any deficiency. Albert Walters himself had begun life as Albert Edward, but Livingstone had seemed more in keeping, he reasoned, for a man with a mission.
It was a practice which Moss came to recognize, and even to his shame to practise, until the members of his family to a man and woman laughed him out of it.
But if the prayer was long, the sermon was even longer, so that the lusty singing of the final hymn owed more to a sense of relief than to a sense of godliness. And the congregation, whose firmly-held belief it was that medicine would do no good which did not taste nasty, could wend their way home to their Sunday dinner well content.
The following year, to Moss‘s delight, a long tradition was broken. For the first time in the history of Hensley Street Chapel there was to be a change in the ordering of the Anniversary Sermons. No longer would the girls have it all their own way. In the year of Our Lord 1924 boys were to take part.
But the Stewards, for all their piety, were not entirely unworldly. They calculated that Harold Roper would have enough on his plate with a mass of chattering girls and their younger brothers, without leavening the lump with young males who had reached the threshold of puberty, a stage of life where only their mothers could love them. No boy above the age of ten, they decreed, would grace the tiers of baize-covered boards.
So Moss joined the girls every Tuesday evening, to learn and practise the hymns. Best of all, this gave him the chance to meet for the first time a device called the ‘descant‘, which required the boys to learn an altogether different tune from the one the girls would sing.
Harold Roper was an old hand at this game and had no illusions about the problems that would arise. He segregated the boys from the girls and took each through their respective tunes until he was assured that the members of each group had their own tune firmly embedded in their skulls, and particularly the boys, so that they might have some hope of carrying one tune while the girls sang the other.
As he fully expected, the first time the two camps came together it was chaos come again. Drowned by the shrill tones of the girls who were greatly in the majority, the boys began in bewilderment, continued in dismay, faltered, and sank without trace.
‘Put yer ‘ands over yer ears, lads !‘ said Harold. ‘Then tek ‘em away gently, like, a bit at a time, till yer sure o‘ the tune ! Na then, you lasses, A want yer to sing a lot softer, d‘y‘ear, an‘ give the lads a chance !‘
This time it went a little better, and the next time better still. The sound of it so delighted and astonished Moss that he stopped singing, the better to hear and appreciate it. Unfortunately, so did the rest, and once more the descant sickened and died.
But at last they had it, and Harold Roper could rest content in the knowledge that, with a little more practice, all would be well on the day. He could now turn his thoughts to the solo items.
It was Moss‘s known aptitude at committing words to heart that persuaded the choirmaster to choose him for one of the solo spots – that, and the knowledge that one of Jim Garrett‘s offspring was unlikely to give him any heart-burning on the score of misconduct or absence from rehearsals, always a serious consideration in his book.
Moss‘s pièce de résistance was to be a mercifully short and appallingly mawkish homily in verse, entitled ‘Never Mind !‘ and written by some unknown hand with more enthusiasm than expertise in prosody:
Are there storm-clouds all around
Never mind !
Does the noise of strife resound ?
Never mind !
When your enemies arise,
Lift your eyes up to the skies;
There you‘ll see the victor‘s prize !
Never mind !
There was more of the same, equally undistinguished, and Moss thought it marvellous. Without delay he set himself to the task of getting it by heart, and surprised even himself by the speed with which he contrived to do so. Only in later years would he learn the truth that no form of verse is quite so easy to commit to memory as doggerel. By the time the Anniversary Sermons arrived. the slogan enshrined in his sole effort was one which his family was finding it hard to observe, and which they would one and all have gladly consigned to the oblivion it merited.
Not for a moment did it occur to Moss that the satisfaction he found in committing such pap to heart and foisting it on an uncritical public was anything to be ashamed of. Indeed, he looked forward eagerly to the chance of showing off his prowess as eagerly as he looked forward to Christmas or Whitsuntide, and gloried in the certainty that, come the appointed day, he would be, as always, word-perfect.
But the whirligig of time brings in his revenges. The true poets who must have been whirling in their graves to hear such stuff were to be well satisfied in the reception it met with at Moss Garrett‘s début.
The hymns, raucously revivalist or lugubriously sentimental, seemed to Moss to be even longer than their usual sum of verses. The minister‘s prayer-fest threatened to stretch out to the very edge of doom. Moss yawned and fidgetted, and did his best to ignore the butterflies which had invaded his stomach despite his earlier confidence. Even the now-familiar descant had lost some of its charm as he waited with ill-concealed impatience for his chance to shine.
But at long last the Reverend A. Livingstone Walters rose to his feet.
‘Hrrrm ! I‘m sure we‘ve all noticed that we‘ve ‘ad a few changes this year, ha ha ! And I ‘ope it won‘t be the last time we see our little boys up ‘ere, an‘ that they‘ll always be as well-be‘aved as you boys ‘ave been this year|! An‘ now we‘re goin‘ to ‘ear from one of our little boys. Michael Garrick is goin‘ to give us a little recitation called ‘Never Mind !‘‘
The unfamiliar name quite threw Moss off balance, and his neighbour had to nudge him before he rose to his feet.
Not for a moment had he thought it would be like this. Every eye in the chapel was fixed upon him, from the unctuous eye of the minister to the rheumy eye of Albert Smith in the back pew, for whom the Anniversary Sermons provided the only odour of sanctity to meet his nostrils in the entire year.
Moss began uneasily, and at once caught the eye of Mester Roper, mouthing ‘Speak up ! Speak up !‘ But he had other and weightier matters on his mind. All consideration of speaking up and using ‘expression‘ was gone with the dawning realization that there is more to public speaking than words.
Somehow he staggered through the first verse without actually breaking down, and by the end his voice was actually beginning to lose the quavering which had threatened to silence him.
And then disaster struck.
Instead of the familiar words of the second verse writ large in his mind there was only a blank sheet. He could see the page. He knew exactly where on the page the words of the second verse began, at the top of the right-hand page. But of the words themselves there was not a sign.
He forced himself to concentrate as he had so often been advised, unaware in his ignorance of such matters that he could have done nothing worse. He even mouthed the words of the first verse over again, in the hope that the words of the second verse might then appear, as they had always done before.
He looked around him wildly and caught his mother‘s eye. But she, poor woman, though having heard the lines ad nauseam, was too intent on feeling sympathy for her son in his all too apparent distress to be able to offer help.
In an agony of mind, Moss looked to Mester Roper and could make nothing of the words he was mouthing.
It seemed to him that he had been standing in this icy wilderness of misery and shame for an eternity before Mester Roper relieved him by surreptitiously waving for him to sit down again. He slunk back on to the bench in an embarrassed silence, broken at last by the voice of the minister, charitably announcing the next hymn.
The service now dragged on to its appointed end, but Moss was all unheeding. By the time the worshippers filed out there were few who remembered or would very much care that one small boy had done himself less than justice on this occasion. But, for Moss, the shame of abject failure lay on his spirit like lead, and not all his mother‘s reassurances could comfort him.
The time would come, of course, when he would see it in perspective, when he would even be able to smile at the remembrance of it. But that time was not yet. In his heart he knew – and the years were to prove the truth of that knowledge – that he would never, never forget it.