Living in a age in which a state of uncertainty about the future was the only certainty, when a family might move from tinned salmon for tea one Sunday to bread-and-scrape the next, there were times when Moss, like others of his kind, had to learn to meet with disappointment and false hopes and deal with them as best he could.
But, though he might thus early in his career have taken to heart the knowledge that hopes may be dupes, he was slower to learn that fears may be liars, and his catalogue of childish fears was not made any smaller by much reading and a lively imagination.
All through his childhood a morbid and irrational fear of the dark had troubled his waking hours. The coming down of night on Grimesmoor, whatever it may have meant to the rest of its people, was to Moss the signal for all the forces of evil to compass him round and to threaten his very life. Away from the green glow of the gas-lamps in the street, and even between the lamps if they were spaced too widely, it seemed to him that every corner might conceal an attacker, and every entry-end a wild-eyed maniac with an appetite for small boys.
If he could have confessed them, such terrors might have been easier to bear, but that was out of the question. The merest hint of distress on his part was met with scorn, and the injunction not to be ‘such a babby‘. In time he came to accept that grown-ups were brave, and he was not. That was all there was to it, and there was nothing to be done about it.
His reading, which was voracious and quite undiscriminating from the moment he acquired the skill, did nothing to help, merely adding to his present fears more horrible imaginings. There were times when he chanced upon a story which common sense told him he should avoid at all costs, and which drew him instead like a magnet. The next few minutes would find him drinking in terrors with a crawling scalp and a horrified fascination. And, though he might swear to avoid any such stories for the future, he would return to them again and again like a drunkard to the bottle.
So, long before he reached his ninth year, Moss was by way of being an authority on the horrific. He knew more than he wished to know on the subject of slant-eyed and inscrutable Orientals slinking down Limehouse streets, a favourite ingredient of fiction at the time.
To him, London was merely an idea, for he had never been, nor was ever likely to be, within a hundred and fifty miles of the capital. But his knowledge of the Chinese quarter down by the docks, all of it acquired through the medium of cheap ‘comics‘, a most unsuitable name for such retailers of the horrors, was detailed indeed. His belief in the truth of the printed word had not so far been tested, and he knew every facet of that life, the oily waters of the Thames, the shifting fog, the noisome opium-dens – whatever opium might be, though he gathered it had some unlikely connection with poppies – and, above all, the wily minions of the Tongs, in their silken gowns with long wide sleeves, every one of which concealed a murderously sharp knife. And all these things were no less real to him for their having no roots in real life.
As long as such a world remained the stuff of fiction, however, his fears could be borne, no matter how awesome they might be. He could draw some small comfort from repeated assurances to himself – assurances whose power began to wane as the day drew to its close – that these things ‘on‘y ‘appened in books‘.
But when, as sometimes happened, real-life events threatened to break through that barrier and he seemed about to meet with the stuff of fiction in his own life, his fears took on frightening substance, sapped at his vitals, and threatened to drown completely all his self-assurance.
The worst of its kind came upon him one day like a bolt from a clear sky.
His mother called him in from play, cursorily checked his appearance before packing him off again, and in a few words casually shattered the ordered calm of the sunlit world.
‘‘Ere y‘are, our Moss ! A want yer to tek our Jack’s shirt ter t‘Chinese laundry !‘
‘Aw, Mam ! ‘Ave A got to ? It‘s miles !‘
Had she been less occupied with her own concerns at that moment, she must surely have seen the blanching of his face, but instead, with a helping hand at his back, she began to push him out of doors. As she had more than half expected, he showed signs of renewed protest.
Lizzie, her mind on other matters, hardly noticed his objections. Had she done so, she would doubtless have taken them for the routine ‘mitherin‘‘ proper to any small boy called in from play to go on an errand, a response to be brushed aside with scant ceremony.
‘‘Ere y‘are ! An‘ don‘t forget ter bring t‘ticket back !‘
Moss now recalled that he had heard some talk of an event at ‘t‘university‘ that apparently called for his eldest brother to dress up like a trussed chicken in a thing he called a ‘dress suit‘ and something unknown to Moss called a ‘dickey‘. It was a form of clothing rarely seen in Grimesmoor, a place not much given to banquets and balls and after-dinner speeches.
What he had not understood was that the starched front, the stiff collar, and the shirt that went with the suit had to be laundered in a manner which was beyond his mother‘s powers. They must be taken to a Chinese laundry.
The word ‘Chinese‘ threatened to drain the last drop of blood from his body and the marrow from his very bones. He knew that laundry only too well, though until now only from hearsay. His schoolmates had curdled his blood and their own with colourful accounts of the unspeakable things that went on behind the drawn curtain of that awful door.
In other circumstances than the present, Moss could contain his fears and push aside these tales by giving the place the widest possible berth. If he chose, he could even avoid that street altogether. And, even if for some reason he was obliged to use it, he could always, like the priest and the Levite, pass by on the other side.
But now there was no such choice open to him. Now he was not only required to walk down that street, but to go up to that door, open it, and enter. He must actually cross the threshold of a place which had played such a lively part in his nightmares.
He had a sudden vision of that shabby door, with its glass upper panel and the dingy curtain behind it which concealed Heaven only knew what horrors. Even as he took in the realization of all that it meant, he knew he could not face it.
He wished with all his heart that he could tell his mother how he felt, how impossible it was for him to open that door, to cross that threshold, and to find himself separated only by a wooden counter from such things. But something told him she would not understand. Grown-ups never did. You couldn‘t talk to them about such things.
He set off with dragging feet, casting feverishly about him for some way out of this walking nightmare.
The sight of Alec Willett just leaving his own door promised a prospect of hope.
‘Eigh up, Alec ! Does tha want to come wi‘ me ?‘
‘Why, wheer tha gooin‘ ?‘ asked Alec, not at all anxious to buy a pig in a poke.
Moss explained, and found with sinking heart that Alec was not enthusiastic. ‘Besides,‘ he added, as a final crusher, ‘me Mam says as A‘ve got ter stop in t‘yard, ‘cos us dinners‘s nearly ready.‘
Moss pleaded that they could run there and back again in no time, but, weighed against Alec‘s knowledge of his mother‘s certain displeasure, Moss‘s pleas counted for little.
Moss had no more luck with other friends on whom he used his most persuasive promises and cajolings. With growing apprehension, he felt the jaws of the trap closing on him. And then, when all hope seemed to have faded to the merest flicker, his desperate efforts were rewarded.
It was nothing less than an inspiration.
He remembered another laundry, a large steam-laundry, admittedly much farther off than the Chinaman‘s, but doubtless staffed with good honest folk with pink cheeks and round eyes. He knew nothing more of the Snowhite Laundry than its name and its whereabouts, for laundries were not a thing on which the average Grimesmoor boy could expect to be well-informed. But he needed no more than this. He set off with a lighter step and with joy in his heart.
‘Me Mam wants this ‘ere shirt ‘n things doin‘‘ he said to the lady behind the high counter. ‘Can yer do it ?‘
She looked at the shirt and its trappings, and then at the small boy with the grave, dark eyes.
‘Special finish ?‘ she asked.
‘Aye, that‘s awright !: he replied, having not the glimmer of a notion as to her meaning.
‘Ready next Thursday !‘ she said.
For the life of him, Moss could not recall whether he had been told by what date Jack required the clothes, but he decided to cross that bridge when he came to it.
He was almost out of the door when the lady called him back for his ticket.
He had partly expected questions when he got home, but he was all unprepared for the storm which greeted the appearance of the Snowhite ticket.
‘Eigh, what‘s this, our Moss ? This ticket‘s not from no Chinese laundry !‘
He began to explain, but his mother had not done.
‘D‘yer think as A‘m payin‘ their fancy prices for a shirt ? An‘ when‘s it gooin‘ ter be ready, eh ?‘
‘Next Thursday, Mam !‘
‘Next Thursday ? Our Jack wants it fer Tuesday night|! Yer can just goo‘n get that shirt back, an‘ tek it ter t‘proper place, d‘y‘ear ?‘
‘Aw, Mam –‘ he began, caught her eye, and knew it was useless to protest.
The lady at the Snowhite Laundry was not well pleased to be put to the trouble of finding the shirt again. But Moss feared her evident displeasure not at all when weighed against his mother‘s certain anger, and he soon had the offending articles once more under his arm.
And now it all began again . . .
Now he knew that all hope must be abandoned, and that there was no way of escape. Slowly, and sick with fear, he made his way to that door.
The bell above the door startled him half out of his wits. He crept inside, taking care not to close the door behind him. He must have at least the prospect of a quick dash to safety.
The shop was empty.
He stood by the half-open door, hardly daring to breathe. He scarcely noticed his surroundings, the shabby curtains and the peeling paint. His eyes were fixed upon that empty space behind the counter.
Suddenly, and with no sound, the Chinaman was there. In one hand he held a flat iron. The other held the cut half of a potato.
Moss stood rooted to the spot. At any other time, he would have taken in the trousers, the braces, and the collar-less shirt, far removed from his fantasies. But all he could see were the yellow skin and the slanted eyes.
The Chinaman put down the tools of his trade, lifted the flap of the counter, and advanced upon the shrinking Moss.
Moss had never known such fear. His mouth was dry and parched. His skin was cold. His bowels threatened to melt within him. Unable to move, he stood there as the Chinaman shuffled past him on slippered feet and closed the door.
Then, still without speaking, he returned to the counter, closed the flap behind him, and reached out a skinny hand for Moss‘s parcel.
Moss thumped down the parcel and turned to flee. But the latch would not yield to his fumbling hands. As he struggled with it despairingly, he felt a hand on his shoulder.
He wheeled round, white with terror.
The Chinaman was holding out to him a slip of pink paper. In a thin, high voice he said,
‘Leady Sat‘dee !‘
Moss snatched at the slip, managed at last to open the door, and ran and ran until it seemed there was no breath left in his body.
He was still weak with fear when he arrived home.
And then the terror returned in earnest, for he knew that in two days‘ time it was all to do again. Come Saturday, he must return to that shop. He did not see how he could face it again, and he knew no way to avoid it.
He slept badly that night, and woke to the realization that only twenty-four hours remained before he must face the horror again.
The sight of Harold Roper collecting the chapel keys for his weekly organ-practice offered him a way of escape. He made his way, almost on the heels of the organist, to the doors of the chapel, crept in behind him unseen, and crouched in the family pew.
When Harold Roper finally closed the doors of the console and made his way from the chapel, he left behind him all unknowing the cowering figure of a small boy, afraid that he might still be discovered, and only easy in his mind when he heard the key in the lock and the sound of footfalls dying away.
Time passed slowly, but the dawning pangs of hunger scarcely troubled him. And it was not until the light began to fade that he realized that escape from one fear had delivered him into the hands of another. Darkness was coming down. He was locked in the empty chapel. It was growing gloomier and more forbidding with every minute.
And from this terror, he knew, there could be no escape.
As the evening air grew chill, the old building began to creak and whisper. His terror of the Chinaman was nothing to this. He crouched still lower in the pew, rigid with horror, expecting every moment he knew not what.
Meanwhile, back at Number Seventeen, Fern Street, his mother‘s suffering matched his own. As the slow hours passed with no word of her son, though by now half of Grimesmoor was searching every nook and cranny, her fears increased until she no longer knew what she was doing or why.
As the members of the family arrived home one by one, they were despatched to join the searchers, and all to no avail. When Jim at last came in from his work, he found a wife half out of her senses with grief and fear.
‘Look, love,‘ he said, with more calmness than he felt, ‘sit yerself down an‘ ‘ave a cup o‘ tea. Yer doin‘ no good runnin‘ around like a rat in a trap. Just sit yerself down, an‘ A‘ll goo an‘ ‘ave a word wi‘ Bobby Hurditch.‘
The name of the constable did little to calm Lizzie‘s agitation, but at length Jim‘s presence and his well-simulated air of composure restored her to something nearer sanity.
He reached up for the chapel keys on his way to the door.
‘A‘ll not be long, love,‘ he said. ‘A‘m just gooin‘ to attend to t‘boilers at t‘chapil. An‘ then A‘ll goo straightaway ‘n see Bobby Hurditch.‘
And so it was that Moss heard above the pounding of his heart the glad sound of the key in the chapel door. The next moment Jim Garrett was all but bowled over as a small figure rushed at him out of the gloom and buried his head in the rough cloth of his father‘s waistcoat.
Before they left the chapel, Jim knew all. He sat in one of the pews in the half-light of the chapel and took his son on his knee.
‘Na look ‘ere, son ! A‘ll tell yer what we‘ll do. Tomorrer afternoon A‘ll tek yer to that Chinese laundry, an‘ yer‘ll see that yer‘ve nowt to bother yer ‘ead about. ‘E‘s just a poor man scrattin‘ fer a livin‘, yer know. An‘ A‘ll tell yer what we‘re gunna do now, befoor A tek yer ‘ome to yer Mam. A‘ve got to see ter t‘boilers, an‘ check all t‘doors ter see as everythin‘s properly locked. An‘ yer gunna ‘owd me ‘and, like this,‘ he added, suiting the words to the action, ‘an‘ we‘re gunna goo all over t‘chapil, an‘ mek sure everythin‘s safe. Awright ?‘
Moss was not entirely reassured.
‘In t‘dark, Dad ?‘
‘Aye,‘ his father replied. ‘A niver put t‘lights on when A‘m seein‘ ter t‘chapil. Why should A ? There‘s nowt ‘ere in t‘ dark as in‘t ‘ere in t‘daylight, yer know. D‘yer see ?‘
In truth, Moss saw but imperfectly. But with his small hand in the large and enormously comforting hand of his father, some of the terror of the day began to seep from his bones and his troubled mind.
And the fuss that his mother made of him, and the knowledge that he would not now have to brave the terrors of that Chinese laundry alone, sent him to bed happier that night than he could have believed possible that same morning.