MOSS

CHAPTER 12

The Wine of Life
Macbeth II, iii

It was accepted as a natural law by most Hallamside mothers that children were provided by a beneficent Providence for the purpose of running errands. There were few Hallamside children to be found, however, who gave thanks to Providence for this bounty. They would greet every request with the same words, ‘Aw, Mam ! ‘Ave A got to ?‘ The protest was to be expected, but the outcome predictable, for the law is the law. Their pleas fell on deaf ears.

In those days of straitened means, few housewives could afford to lay in a stock of provisions. Indeed, the nearest thing to a larder that most households in Grimesmoor possessed was a small dark area with a few shelves, at the top of the steps leading down to the coal-cellar, and known in local parlance as ‘t‘cellar‘ead‘. Few indeed were the homes that could boast of provisions in any quantity lying on those shelves; anything bought before noon had usually been eaten before the sun went down. And if the housekeeping money ran out before Friday morning it was bread-and-scrape from the remaining remnants on the cellar-head until Dad came home with his wage-packet on Friday evening.

Every single item required, of course, the services of the ‘family slipper‘ to bring it from the shop to the table, so there was an abundance of running of errands for Mam, and grumbles from her family. But even within such a narrow span of economy there were variations and subtle distinctions of social standing. In the three or four streets to the north of Fern Street, dwelt a stratum of folk who were, at least in their own view, superior to those in Fern Street, for their affluence might run to a tin of salmon for Sunday tea every week, where their less fortunate neighbours might see it only on high days and holidays.

The streets to the south of Fern Street, on the other hand, sported a sub-culture of those who had slipped down the social ladder. Here you might find the kind of man who, instead of bringing his pay-packet straight home on Friday evening and putting it unopened into his wife‘s hand, as a dutiful and respectable working-man should, would instead booze a sizeable part of it away before rolling home to a stone-cold meal and a blazing wife. These were the families who provided the local pawnbroker with much of his business, by taking Dad‘s best suit in on Monday morning to pawn it, only to retrieve it on the following Saturday, a practice which was made possible only by asking for ‘tick‘ from the local shops throughout the week and paying off the debt when the depleted pay-packet came in. It was hard enough for a respectable housewife to manage the money; the stratagems to which her shiftless neighbours were driven would have given a professional accountant headaches.

So it was a common sight to see children of Moss‘s tender years running into one of the small shops on Carlisle Road, carrying a screw of paper containing the required money to the exact half-penny, and a pencilled note of the goods he was to bring back, a note which always ended with the two words ‘And Oblige‘ – the lingua franca of those parts which corresponded to formal thanks. And woe betide any child who forget to check that he had the right change, or who tried to pocket it himself. Every half-penny counted, and every one was accounted for.

In due time, Moss served his apprenticeship to ‘runnin‘ erran‘s‘ by accompanying his brother Joe on such outings – as the necessary prelude to becoming the ‘family slipper‘ – until Lizzie judged that he could be trusted to go alone. He was now under orders to make his way home directly from school at noon or half-past four o‘clock in the certain knowledge that there would be at least one errand to run.

In the course of a single day he might be required to make excursions for such things as ‘a ha‘porth of pot ‘erbs‘ (which, being translated, meant a couple of smallish carrots, a slice from a small swede, one small onion and, if fortune smiled on Lizzie, one small stick from a root of celery). All of these added up to the ingredients for a saucepan of hash, the standard dish on the Monday wash-day which used up the remnants of the meagre Sunday dinner.

On another occasion it might be a quarter-pound of ‘‘ot udder‘ for Jim‘s meal, a delicacy which, one supposes, no longer figures in any list of household necessities. Then again, it might be a pound of medium treacle, in which case Moss was required to take an empty jar, to be filled from the barrel behind the counter of the Co-operative Stores and then covered by the assistant with a small square of greaseproof paper to ‘keep out t‘smuts‘ on the journey home.

Or Lizzie might require two ounces of ‘barm‘ (the yeast required for the making of home-made bread). And on rare occasions there might be a need for a piece of cobbler‘s wax, a sovereign remedy for removing a wood-splinter (known locally as a ‘spell‘) from finger or thumb, when all efforts to dislodge it with a sewing-needle had failed.

It would never have struck Lizzie, or any other Grimesmoor mother, to store up these requirements so that her child could encompass them in a single journey. It had long been established that errands were the household duty of the youngest child as soon as that child had reached an age where it might take over the duty. Joe was, understandably, delighted to see his younger brother preparing to take over his rôle, and was assiduous in training him so that the transfer might be sooner rather than later.

Moss, with a certain measure of pride and some illusions born of ignorance, raised no objections. Not that it would have mattered; he was an imaginative and adventurous child who found it no burden and much to exercize his mind and his sense of wonder in the expanding world of Grimesmoor, the university of the street – at least, until custom staled its infinite variety. Besides, it had not yet dawned on him that, with no younger child in the family, he was like to serve a longer stretch than most of his friends as the ‘family slipper‘.

He took over the role some eight years after the night of the Zeppelin. Joe graduated from the post into adolescence and freedom, and his younger brother in his turn eventually grew to dread the sound of his mother‘s voice calling him from play with a cry of ‘‘Ere, our Moss, jus‘ slip ‘n fetch me three pound o‘ pertaters !‘

On his accession, one of Moss‘s regular duties was the Friday evening visit to ‘t‘Stoors‘, the local branch of The Hallamside and District Co-operative Society Limited. He had long known his mother‘s ‘Stoor‘s number‘ and could pipe up ‘three seven four six‘ without hesitation or fear of error long before he knew what the symbols meant. He knew, too, to guard the ten-shilling note in his clenched fist with his life, and always to remind the assistant to wrap up the change in a piece of paper so that it should arrive home with him intact.

He also knew how, with the application of elbow or steel-capped toe, to defend his turn at the counter against the sort of unscrupulous grown-up who would push small children to the rear of the throng at the counter if they thought they could get away with it.

To speak truth, it was a long time before Moss tired of this duty. There was much to see in the crowded shop and all of it absorbing, from the sawdust-covered floor to the sides of bacon hanging from the ceiling. There was the ‘railway‘ which carried the Stores check and the ten-shilling note along singing wires from the counter to the office high up in the rafters, to return miraculously a few minutes later with the same check and the exact change. He deeply envied the nonchalant assistant as he stuffed the note and the check into the metal cup, fastened it to the carriage with a practised flick of the wrist and then, with one smart pull on the cord with the polished wooden handle, sent it flying unerringly to its destination.

Then there were the barrels of butter which were rolled out from time to time from the store-room at the rear of the shop. It was always a red-letter day if his weekly visit coincided with this event. He would watch round-eyed as the top was prised off and one by one the barrel-staves were pulled apart so that a huge round of butter could be cut off and transferred to the marble slab on the counter. Nor was this the end of the entertainment. The assistant would then cut off a piece of the required weight (Moss never ceased to marvel at the accuracy of his judgement), proceed to pat it into shape with a pair of wooden paddles, and finally, on the larger orders, finish with a flourish of the special paddle which left the slab of butter delicately sculptured on its face with a life-like bas-relief of an unmistakable cow.

Sadly, Friday night was a bad night for this entertainment, for the assistants were usually too ‘throng‘ to bother with such refinements. Moss wondered how they could have the heart to refrain. For his part, he would gladly have served butter all night for the privilege of imprinting those cows, and could think of no occupation in the world so worth-while.

Then there was the cheese, yellow and hard as soap or white and crumbly, cut with an entrancing length of wire fastened to two wooden handles from a block that would have fed a regiment, and then cut smaller still on a block with a fixed wire cutter.

There were the treacle-kegs behind the counter each with its own small tap, and labelled respectively dark, medium and light. There was the hessian-covered lump of barm on the counter, an essential item in every household‘s requirements, for any housewife who did not regularly bake her own bread was counted no better than a slut, on a par no doubt with a husband who drank much of his pay-packet on the Friday evening.

There were the grain-hoppers in the room at the back of the shop which always made him wish that his parents kept hens, so that he could see the dusty-haired assistant scoop the Indian corn out of the container beneath, allowing a fresh supply to cascade down.

For Moss it was a cornucopia, a feast not only for the sight but for the nose, too. He could never tire of observing the suet, the tinned tomatoes, the pullet eggs for cooking purposes only – real eggs were something of an Easter treat, being reserved for Dad the rest of the year, though the youngest in the family might look to get the top of his Sunday-morning boiled egg – and, on rare and delightful occasions, a half-pound of bacon, cut on the huge machine with the great wheel and the fearsome blade with its reputation for removing careless fingers ‘just like that‘ – though the assistants all seemed to carry a full complement.

Years later, when the visual memory had dimmed with time, one whiff of the odour of an old-fashioned grocer‘s shop could whirl Moss back through time and space to this weekly ritual, and become almost a matter for tears.

There were other and farther errands to which Moss came in his turn, and which all three of his older brothers had known before him. And there was one which in view of its regularity and distance might have caused resentment in the breast of another boy. Moss, who had his own liking for jaunts, rarely jibbed at it.

It was the custom in those parts for the respectable housewife to see to it that her man had a hot dinner every day – dinner, of course, being the mid-day meal. It was out of the question for him to come home for the meal, since the restricted length of the noon break made this impossible. So each member of the family in turn had taken Dad‘s dinner to his place of work, with varying degrees of rebellion and all of them disregarded, for the practice was one that Lizzie, like any dutiful wife, respected.

The traditional dinner-basket testified to the endurance of the practice, for long usage had achieved the ideal shape for the purpose. It was a container of basket-work, light and strong, and in shape resembling a loaf of bread with a hinged top. When the interior had received the basin which held the meal and which was then covered with a snowy-white cloth, the lid was fastened with a crude but effective loop and peg device, and the basket could now be carried upright by means of the handle in the centre of the lid. And woe betide any child foolish enough to swing it around on the way to its destination, since the evidence of the offence made itself only too plain in the spilt contents.

Moss would then set off on the fifteen minutes‘ walk to the steelworks, to stand at the gates and wait for the sound of the hooter that signalled the end of the morning stint. A few minutes later, and his father would appear, in waistcoat and shirt-sleeves, working-shirt collarless and open at the neck, and still wearing the coarse apron and the gleaming white sweat-scarf that marked off the steelworker from the rest of mankind.

His father would reach down a hand as brown and hard as an unpeeled walnut to take the basket from his son, lay the other hand on his dark head and say, ‘Right ! Off yer goo, son !‘ and turn to go at once, clumping away down the cobbled yard in his wooden clogs with their sled-runner irons.

On rare occasions, Moss would have a ball with him, to kick all the way home and to while away the time and the long journey. More often, he would have to content himself with a small stone, dribbling it along the pavement, flicking it against the wall, and outwitting half-backs and full-backs by the score on the inevitable way to the goal.

 

Then, once every month, came the regular errand to collect the wine for the chapel, for it was one of the caretaker‘s duties to arrange the supply of wine for the Sacrament service, the nonconformist counterpart to the Eucharist. The ritual of the service was as yet a closed book to Moss, and he was apt to wonder at times what the chapel wanted with wine. It was his understanding that the chapelgoers believed that wine was a mocker and strong drink was raging, so the need for this monthly errand was something of a mystery. He knew, because he had seen his father doing it, that eventually the wine was poured out into small glasses each little larger than a thimble and then set out on a tray. But what the ultimate purpose of these arrangements might be quite escaped him.

Years later, when he made the acquaintance of the Communion service in a church of quite another denomination, he was astonished to find that the congregation all drank from the same silver flagon. But, unlike the practice which obtained in that later church, he came to learn that the wine used at Hensley Street Chapel had to be non-alcoholic. The worshippers at this shrine could never have brought themselves to believe that the Man who had founded their faith some nineteen centuries earlier had been given to strong drink.

But it had to look like wine, and it had to taste like wine so, having found a reliable source of home-made blackcurrant wine, guaranteed non-alcoholic, they were glad at heart and stayed with it.

It was on one such errand that Moss was accosted by Alec Willett.

‘Eigh, Moss, wheer tha gooin ?‘

‘A‘m off to t‘erbalist‘s fer t‘wine fer t‘Sacrament|!‘ Moss replied.

‘Can a come wi‘ thi ?‘

‘Aye, if thi mother‘ll let thi !‘

Permission having been granted, they set off, not without some anxiety on Maggie Willett‘s part, and with the customary instruction to behave themselves to which they paid little heed. There was in the breast of every Hallamside mother a rooted conviction that, left to himself, every boy was drawn to mischief as by a magnet.

Alec was curious as to the reason for Moss‘s errand. Wine was not a commodity that figured at all largely in the lives of Grimesmoor folk, and both boys were aware of the fact.

‘Nay, A don‘t know,‘ said Moss. ‘But mi Dad says as A‘ve allus got to goo theer !‘

‘Well, that‘s daft, A reckon,‘ Alec replied. ‘There‘s any amount o‘ beer-offs between ‘ere and t‘erbalist‘s. A know they sell wine theer, ‘cos mi Dad got some las‘ Christmas !‘

‘Aye, ‘appen so,‘ said Moss, ‘but A‘d better goo wheer mi Dad says. It‘s not fer ‘im, it‘s fer t‘chapil, tha sees !‘

Alec failed to see the difference. Moreover, if Moss was right, he argued, and the chapel folk had the wine in little glasses, they‘d not see any difference either.

‘Aye, A know,‘ said Moss. ‘But tha knows mi Dad !‘

This silenced Alec for a moment, but he soon returned to the point with a telling thrust.

‘A‘ll tell thi summat else. If tha goos ter t‘beer-off in Pashby Street, she‘ll gie thi a ‘andful o‘ spice ! She gies every kid a ‘andful when they goo in fer summat fer their mothers !‘

This was almost a clincher. Sweets were a luxury, and sweets in mid-week almost unheard of. The thought of sweets for nothing was unbearably seductive.

Alec could see that Moss was wavering and delivered the coup de grâce.

‘An‘ if tha goos in fer summat as cosses as much as wine, she‘ll ‘appen gie thi a extra big ‘andful !‘

It was not to be borne any longer. Moss‘s last scruple vanished. They made their way quickly to the off-licence-cum-grocer‘s-cum-general-store, and waited in a torment of impatience while a tremulous old woman in a shawl, ruminant with gossip, made a few meagre and leisurely purchases.

‘No, love,‘ said the old woman behind the counter, as the old chatterbox edged out of the swing-doors, ‘A don‘t keep blackcurrant wine. But A‘ve gorra nice port-type, like !‘

‘Aye, that‘ll do !‘ said Moss, all discretion abandoned in the lust for sweets.

And, true to Alec‘s promise, on receiving payment from the twist of newspaper. she not only gave Moss a handful of sweets of lurid colour and doubtless equally exotic taste, but Alec too. This further gladdened the heart of Moss, who had been calculating the price that Alec would extort for the information.

It was Alec who remembered to ask Moss just in time about the label on the bottle, and thus saved Moss certain embarrassment when he got home with the wine. The herbalist‘s brew, Moss recalled, being made by his own hands, bore no label of any kind.

By dint of much spit and scratching they eventually managed to remove the tell-tale label. Moss‘s conscience troubled him as he handed over the bottle at home, but only for a moment, since it was accepted without question.

But by the next weekend, when the wine was to be put to use, Moss was troubled by doubts, plagued by uncertainties, and mortally afraid of what might happen should his father find out. He rushed home from chapel on the Sunday evening and actually volunteered to go straight to bed, a submission which caused his mother to raise an eyebrow which caused his heart to miss a beat.

Monday morning came, and nothing was said. Monday evening, and still his father‘s brow was clear. The wine must have been all right after all.

The next time he was required to fetch the Sacrament wine, he went straight to the off-licence in Pashby Street, and this time his conscience scarcely troubled him. He took it a little unkindly, considering that he had carefully omitted to invite Alec, that the old lady gave him only the same amount of sweets as before. But some spice, he told himself, is better than no spice at all.

On the following Monday morning, now all but free of the prickings of conscience, he was up and dressed before his father left for work.

But something was wrong. Something in his father‘s eyes told him.

Nothing was said, however, until, as he was leaving the house, his father said over his shoulder,

‘When I get ‘ome ternight, mi lad, A want a word wi‘ you !‘

Moss felt a sudden, sickening stab of alarm but tried not to show it.

‘What about, Dad ?‘

Jim turned round and looked his small son firmly in the eye.

‘Yer know that as well as A do, A reckon ! An‘ if yer don‘t, then yer‘d better search your conscience between now an‘ tea-time. A ‘aven‘t time ter stop now ! Just search yer conscience, that‘s all !‘

But of that there was no need. Somehow, as Mester Shepherd at Sunday School never tired of saying, his sins had found him out. He spent the long day in an agony of remorse and self-recrimination, so that when his father at last came home he could bear the burden no longer.

‘Dad,‘ he blurted out, ‘A‘m sorry about t‘wine ! A know A shouldn‘t ‘ave done it, but it‘s such a long way, an‘ t‘woman at – ‘

His father broke in.

‘Wine ? ‘Oo‘s talkin‘ about wine ?‘

‘T‘Sacrament wine, Dad !‘

‘Oh, aye ? Goo on !‘

‘Well, A know A shouldn‘t ‘ave gorrit from t‘other shop. But A didn‘t think it‘d matter !‘

‘Then yer thowt wrong, didn‘t yer ?‘ his father said, sharply. ‘In future jus‘ you gerrit wheer A‘ve telled yer ter gerrit !‘

‘Yes, Dad !‘

‘No, what A want a word wi‘ you about is t‘state o‘ them pews at t‘back o‘ t‘chapel ! They‘re downright disgraceful ! Yer‘ve been dustin‘ them pews as yer thowt would show an‘ letting t‘rest go hang. Yer ought to be ashamed o‘ yerself, that yer should !‘

He stopped, and lifted Moss‘s bowed head with one work-scarred finger beneath his chin.

‘Now, jus‘ you listen to me, will yer ? Next Sat‘day A want to see all them pews – all of ‘em, mind – properly dusted. An‘ yer don‘t get yer Sat‘day penny till they are, d‘y‘ear ?‘

In any other circumstance Moss might have bridled at the thought that the Saturday chores and the weekly inspection were to be thus extended and tightened. But, with a boy‘s sense of rough justice he saw that the extra burden of work might go some way to expiate his sin in the matter of the Sacrament wine.

 

On the Saturday afternoon he worked longer and more industriously than he had for some time. When at last he called his father to inspect the work the afternoon was far spent.

His father grunted, but Moss knew that it was not a grunt of dissatisfaction.

‘Na that‘s moor like it !‘ he said, when the inspection was complete. ‘A couldn‘t ‘ave done it better mesen ! Na you listen to me, mi lad ! Don‘t you ever think again as a job as isn‘t seen doesn‘t matter. There‘s plenty o‘ that sooart o‘ workman about. Jus‘ you see as you‘re one o‘ t‘other sooart !‘

‘Yes, Dad !‘

‘Right ! ‘Ere‘s yer penny ! Off yer go !‘

Then, on mature consideration, he delayed Moss with a hand on his shoulder.

‘Look, son,‘ he said, ‘A‘ll tell yer what we‘ll do. Next Sunday night yer can stop back at t‘chapel fer t‘Sacrament service. Yer‘ll not be able to tek part – not for a few years yet. But it‘ll do yer no ‘arm to see what ‘appens !‘

So Moss attended his first Sacrament service, and found it a novel and strangely moving experience. He took in every detail of the ritual with utter absorption, and became so immersed in the experience that he quite forgot that the wine which the chapelgoers accepted in quiet humility and reverence was the same wine that he himself had fetched. These ordinary folk in their neat, severe Sunday best were sipping the wine – the wine, he now reminded himself, that he had brought to them – and seemed to take from it a satisfaction which he saw clearly but which was quite beyond his understanding.

As they left the ugly brick chapel, his father was stopped by Albert Kirk.

‘Jim-ah ! A minute-ah o‘ yer time-ah, if yer please|!‘

Moss was dimly aware that his father was not well pleased to be so greeted.

‘A‘ve been meanin‘ to ‘ave a word-ah with yer about-ah ‘t‘wine,‘ the Superintendent went on, heedless of Jim‘s smouldering impatience. ‘It‘s very – well, variable. Very variable ! A ad-ah thought it were gettin‘ a bit-ah better this last time or two. But ternight – ah – well, A didn‘t think as it were quite so good-ah !‘

Moss felt his father‘s hand tighten around his own.

‘Mester Kirk,‘ he said, ‘t‘wine came from t‘same place as it allus does. Made bi t‘same man, an‘ all. Our Moss ‘ere – ‘ and he slipped an arm around Moss‘s shoulders, ‘ – ‘e allus fetches it, an‘ it‘s allus t‘same order !‘

Albert Kirk was clearly disinclined to submit quite so easily.

‘That-ah may well be, Jim. But-ah A‘m seriously considerin‘ recommendin‘ ter t‘stewards as we mek a change-ah. It-ah so ‘appens as A ‘ave a friend-ah ‘oo‘d be ‘appy ter supply us ! At t‘right price, too !‘

Jim faced the Superintendent, still holding Moss by the hand, and drew himself up to his full height.

‘Mester Kirk, t‘wine we‘re gettin‘ now is t‘right price. It‘s made from t‘best ingredients by a member o‘ this congregation. A doubt as t‘stewards‘ll want ter change that !‘

And he strode away, dragging Moss with him, before Albert Kirk could reply.

As he trotted beside his father, Moss said,

‘Dad, A didn‘t get t‘wine from t‘same place !‘

They went on in silence for a few moments, and then Jim stopped and turned Moss to face him.

‘A know what yer thinkin‘, son, yer know ! A told a lie, didn‘t A ?‘

He grinned sheepishly, and went on,

‘A know, A know ! A‘ve told yer as yer must never tell a lie, ‘aven‘t A ? Yer must allus tell t‘truth, eh ? An‘ so yer must, even if it gets yer into trouble ! An‘ A‘ll give yer a damn good ‘idin‘ if yer don‘t, d‘y‘ear ?‘

Then he suddenly looked sober and grave.

‘But A reckon as yer‘ll allus be forgiven if yer tell a lie to get somebody else out o‘ trouble, d‘yer see ?

‘Yes, Dad !‘

‘A know A shouldn‘t ‘ave said that to Mester Kirk. but – well, yer can see what we‘re all up against, can‘t yer ? An‘ if you ever ‘ave t‘job of ordering t‘Sacrament wine, you see as y‘allus get it from t‘same place. You see, A ‘appen to know as it cosses Mester Scholey moor money to mek it than ‘e charges us. On‘y ‘e doesn‘t want it known, and you‘ve got to keep it ter yerself, d‘y‘ear ?

‘Yes, Dad !‘

‘A‘ve seen ‘im mekkin‘ it, son. ‘E does it wi‘ such – such care. There can‘t be a better job done than one as is done that way, na can there ? An‘ A reckon as A s‘ll be forgiven for a thunderin‘ good lie in that cause !‘

But Moss needed no one to remind him for whom the lie had really been told. Conscious now of the enormity of his offence and desolate at the knowledge that he had escaped its deserved consequences, he could think of nothing to say.

And Jim Garrett, looking down into his son‘s face, a face for the moment older than the sum of his years, was astonished to see that his eyes were filled with tears.

 

NEXT CHAPTER
RETURN TO CATALOGUE