Toys played but a small part on the stage of Moss‘s world. Toys cost money, and Grimesmoor had other and more urgent uses for its money at that time.
But there were games in plenty, for games cost nothing, or at the most the kind of outlay that could be covered by the Saturday penny. The household chores and the running of errands which children were asked to do were all done for love, at least in the sense of a tennis score. Few parents – even supposing they could have afforded to do so – would have dreamt of paying for their performance. But it was accepted by all that, once these tasks were done, a child was entitled to its play. And, for the more imaginative child, even the tedium of running errands could often be lightened by arranging matters so as to give them at least the flavour of play.
Their desire for play was the more understandable since games at school were virtually unknown. That part of the school curriculum which later came to be known as ‘Physical Education‘ was called in Moss‘s day, ‘Drill‘. And drill it was indeed, and may have been a bright idea hatched by some half-educated politician who had served as an officer in World War I. (A private soldier might have been better informed).
In an age where every teacher was called upon to teach every subject in the curriculum, ‘Drill‘ had the merit of not requiring any great skill on the part of a teacher, consisting of little more than arms up, arms forward, arms sideways, marching on the spot, and marching and counter-marching. It was ‘Drill‘ which introduced Moss to a new and far from welcome experience, one with a taste scarcely to be washed away by the tides of many years.
He had moved by now from Miss Butler‘s class, by way of a Miss Sarson and a Miss Connolly, to the junior school and the care of a Miss Mearwood, the first teacher for whom he felt no bond of affinity. In this he was not unique among his classmates for Miss Mearwood was one of those spinsters with whom life had dealt harshly. She had lips which were thin and bloodless, and her smiles were as rare as eclipses of the sun.
Neither Moss nor his class-mates could have known that on the morning of this particular day Miss Mearwood had been called before the headmistress and reprimanded for an error in the marking of her register, a failing which, to do her justice, was a rare event in her case. So in this one instance at least she might have been forgiven for feeling that the reprimand was out of all proportion to the offence. Throughout her lunch-hour she smouldered under the injustice until it assumed monstrous dimensions. It was a dangerously unbalanced woman who led out her young charges for the afternoon lesson in ‘Drill‘.
The day was bitterly cold, and the children clumsy and fractious. For their part, many of them were ill-clad to cope with such weather and, for her part, Miss Mearwood was bitterly abstracted except for an obsession with injustice. The lesson ended early with the teacher in the grip of an icy and near-hysterical rage and quite incapable of dealing kindly and generously with children, of whom more than a few were ill-fed and poorly clad. She marched her thirty-six children back to the classroom and systematically caned every one, guilty and innocent alike. In a few minutes the room resembled a casualty-clearing station, with children moaning and crying bitterly, and squeezing their hands into their armpits in a vain endeavour to ease their suffering.
It was Moss‘s first taste of this too-common form of ‘punishment‘ for, to speak truth, he was easy to teach and usually too much interested in his work to give trouble to any teacher. So the burning pain in his hands was matched only by the burning sense of outrage in his soul. He knew that nothing he had done had merited this, and, along with every one of his fellows, he hated Miss Mearwood to the depths of his being.
He could not know that she, poor creature, had derived no relief for her own soul from her outburst. She was not so far steeped in iniquity as to be unaware of the enormity of her offence – even though that offence lay not only in its severity but also in the fact that she knew that she dared not enter the details of it, as the law required, in the school‘s ‘punishment book‘. She knew only too well what retribution might be inflicted upon her if the knowledge of her onslaught upon the children became known. Even in a world where ‘t‘stick‘ was administered all too often and much too casually and with an appalling lack of imagination or compassion, this was extreme and she knew it, and feared the consequences.
But it has to be said in mitigation that Edith Mearwood herself was no stranger to injustice, even if the headmistress’s reproof had not been given. Life had been more than ordinarily unfair to her. She was one of those women left surplus to requirements by the slaughter of many men, any one of whom might have been a suitor to her hand. Now she faced a future bleak indeed, as the unmarried daughter left with the task of eventually caring for aged parents. If Moss and his classmates suffered, she suffered, too. And, unlike theirs, her tears would not pass.
The incident might have ended there had Lizzie not noticed her son‘s hands as she washed him before bed.
‘Eigh up ! What yer been doin‘ to yer ‘ands, our Moss ?‘
The bitterness of the recollection was still too near and too keen to allow Moss to dissemble. He was not at all sure whether this was the sort of affair which could be revealed, or whether he could not in safety tell all. The decision was taken out of his hands by the tears which came unbidden. Lizzie lifted his chin, saw them, and lost no time at all in learning the truth.
If Moss was outraged it was nothing to the emotion his mother felt. But she kept her counsel from her son for the moment, and made up her mind to discuss the matter no further until Jim should return.
He, though fully sharing her sense of outrage, took a more sober view of the steps to be taken. Lizzie‘s insistence that this was a matter for the headmistress met with quiet but firm resistance.
‘A don‘t owd wi‘ runnin‘ to bosses like that,‘ he said. ‘If anybody wants talking to, it‘s ‘er as did it ! But yer know as well as A do as a can‘t be tekkin‘ time off work to go to no school !‘
‘Awright !‘ she said. ‘A‘ll goo mesen !’
‘Yer‘ll do no such thing !‘ he replied.
It was a tone which she had learned was not to be gainsaid. But she seethed inwardly, and in the ensuing days used up much nervous energy trying to devise ways of having the wrong righted in some way which would not run counter to Jim‘s wishes.
Jim had not brushed the matter lightly aside, but he had his own way of dealing with it. Before Moss, still not wholly awake, had dressed for breakfast the next morning, his father came to his bed and lifted him out to stand on the cold oil-cloth.
‘Yer Mam tells me as yer got t‘stick yesterday !‘ he said.
Moss looked up quickly, torn between the need to avoid his father‘s eyes and the desire to read what was there. He could not doubt the kindness which he saw, and it all but undid him again. His father took his shoulders in firm hands.
‘Did yer deserve it ?‘ he asked.
Moss was now quite beyond speech, and could only shake his head.
‘Are yer sure o‘ that ?‘ his father went on.
‘A didn‘t do owt, Dad !‘ he blurted out, his tears beginning to flow again.
‘A see,‘ his father said quietly, appearing to give Moss‘s answer due consideration. Then, after a long pause, he went on,
‘Tell me, son, ‘ave y‘ever done owt at school befoor as deserved t‘stick ? A mean, summat as wasn‘t found out ?‘
Moss looked up at his father again, uncertain of the purpose behind the question. He was forced to admit it.
‘And did yer think that were fair, eh ?‘ his father asked.
There was only one answer.
‘Well, na look ‘ere, son. Yer‘ve played at cricket often enough, so yer‘ll know what A mean. Sometimes yer‘ll be given out ‘Leg befoor‘ when yer weren‘t out. And sometimes yer‘ll be given ‘Not out‘ when y‘are. Now in‘t that right ?‘
His son nodded, still not at all sure where his father was headed.
‘Well now,‘ his father said, taking Moss‘s head between his hands and looking into his eyes, ‘there‘s allus a chance as yer‘ll be punished fer summat as yer didn‘t do. It‘s that sooart o‘ world, yer see. What yer‘ve got to do is think on. Just remember t‘times when yer got away wi‘ it, an‘ set one against t‘other. D‘yer see ?‘
Moss considered this without much success, for the continuing sense of outrage still clouded his mind, and shut out a better understanding. But he knew enough of his father to nod his head as though he fully understood, and went off to school after breakfast by no means convinced, yet oddly comforted.
Years later, when he had been called upon to suffer worse injustices and to bear even greater pain, he would recall the incident of ‘t‘stick‘ and find himself able to smile at the remembrance. But by then he had learned the full import of his father‘s words, and could say ‘Why me ?‘ in moments of ecstasy as feelingly as in bouts of pain.