The Superintendent of a Sunday school in those days could count on a sudden influx of converts twice a year, just before Christmas and just before Whitsuntide. He could be just as certain that every one of them would lapse again as soon as these festivals were over.
With each succeeding year, as the children‘s feasts came round again, more than one Superintendent would swear that this year he would stand firm. It was common knowledge that all these new adherents wanted to do was to qualify for the Christmas Party or the Whitsun Sing.
But, as the time drew near for decisive action, most of them would recall an earlier occasion when the children had been turned away. So for another year they would suffer the little children again.
Every child loves Christmas, but in those parts Whitsuntide ran it a close second for sheer enjoyment. On Whit Sunday morning there was singing round the streets of Grimesmoor – a sort of dress rehearsal for the morrow. Indeed, a true dress rehearsal, for on that day the children could wear their new clothes for the first time, and the girls in their Whitsuntide frocks and with thin rattan canes in their hands could parade before an admiring public gaze.
The boys were less enamoured of new clothes, but they had balls on elastic with which to plague the girls, and pea-shooters which enjoyed a brief, inglorious life, for they were confiscated as soon as seen. And more than one of them had a paper bag in his pocket, holding a ha‘porth of marry-me-quick toffee, and a sad ruin it made of his new suit before the day was out.
But Whit Monday was the day. The children would wake to a misty morning. Clothes still stiff with newness would be put on, and protected with an apron of sorts while the family ate a hasty breakfast.
By the time they were all assembled outside the chapel the bright sun and the cloudless sky gave promise of another golden Whitsun. Then, as the children danced with impatience, the bandsmen took their places, the assembled worshippers were chivvied into some semblance of a procession, the huge silken banner was unfurled between its two upright poles, and floated out over the heads of the first ranks as they moved off.
As they approached the park, other schools appeared, moving in front or taking station behind. The tramcars, whole fleets of them, were drawn up on every track for miles, for this was the children‘s day, when everything gave place to them.
Through the massive cast-iron gates of the park streamed every school in turn, to be directed each to its own enclosure. And there they stood, the children sky-larking and fighting, their parents gossiping, until the massed bands struck up the first hymn.
And then the singing ! What singing that was, to the thumping and booming of the band, and the extravagant gestures of the conductor, mounted on a farm-cart as rostrum, and savouring to the full his hour of glory. Moss would have given his ears to have taken his place.
Then the increasing heat and glare of the day, the smell of trodden grass, and the blissful anticipation of the beanfeast in the afternoon, with its potted-meat sandwiches and its great sustaining buns housed in brown-paper bags. And streams, rivers, oceans of hot sweet tea, as the florid helpers bustled to and fro, and the Superintendent policed the aisles, one eye cocked for any small boy who should dare to liven up the proceedings by blowing up and bursting his bag.
Then the races in the evening, in a field bright with daisies and the gold of buttercups, and a prize for every contestant, not merely for those who won. And dragging home, footsore and replete, as the long day faded and the first stars came out. Simple pleasures, born of a simple faith.
But, for Moss, this year‘s pleasures promised to be bitter fruit. With a child‘s lack of concern for harsh economic reality, he had supposed that this Whitsun would be like all the other Whitsuns. He was all unaware of the miseries and the wretchedness of the dark days of the late ‘twenties. He realized that his father was now at home all day instead of going off to his work before the rest of the family was up and stirring, but then, so were many fathers, and a state of affairs so universal could scarcely be regarded as out of the ordinary. His ignorance was understandable, for there was little talk of such matters in the presence of children, since ‘little pitchers have big ears‘ and children should be seen and not allowed to hear.
He could not fail to have heard at least some of the talk of something called ‘t‘Dole‘ and he suspected that ‘Tea-leaf‘ had much the same meaning as ‘Relief‘, for he was a noticing child. But what any of them meant or implied he could not begin to understand. Such things went on above his head without his thinking that they concerned him in the least.
And then the blow fell . . .
‘A‘m sorry, love,‘ said his mother. ‘Yer‘ll not be able to ‘ave a new suit fer Whitsuntide this year !‘
To Moss, whose head had been filled for weeks with a new acquaintance called Midshipman Easy, and whose thoughts had in consequence been running on a sailor suit, then the height of juvenile fashion, the mere idea was unthinkable. However, he was well used to his mother‘s saying that things couldn‘t be done and then finding ways to do them, and he went back to his book.
But he soon found that this was no token resistance. There really was going to be no new suit for Whitsuntide.
And now a matter which would have caused him little concern at any other time began to assume monstrous proportions. This was not to be borne. There are few traditionalists more hide-bound than children, and Moss was no exception. A Whitsun without new clothes was no more to be tolerated than a Christmas without a Santa Claus.
In all honesty, clothes were of no more than passing concern to Moss, who was always happier in the patched but respectable reach-me-downs which he wore to school than in the outfit which was known as his ‘Sunday best‘. (A purist might have jibbed at the word ‘best‘, arguing that where only two articles are concerned it is not good practice to refer to one of them in the superlative). But now that this was to be denied to him, and knowing that new clothes at Whitsuntide were the only new clothes of any year, the thought of the sailor suit loomed large in his mind, and added to his sense of outrage at this wanton flouting of a sacred tradition.
So, assuming that all that was needed was a firmer resolve than he had so far shown, he returned to the attack.
To his utter astonishment, his mother‘s defences gave no sign of crumbling. His surprise was understandable, for, in an age where children played no part at all in their parents‘ councils, Moss could not know how desperate was the state of the family exchequer at that time.
In one sense, Jim Garrett was worse off than his fellows. Ever a staunch provider, he had taken on the part-time job of chapel caretaker as a means of extra support for a large family, all of whom seemed destined to go on with their education at an age when other people‘s children were beginning to add some small share to the family funds. To do him justice, Jim had never looked upon his acceptance of such a state of affairs as in any way meritorious. It‘s what any man‘d do, he would say, quite overlooking the evident fact that many men did not.
But now the extra money was to be extra no longer, as Lizzie learned to her dismay. She had counted on those few shillings to eke out the weekly Relief money from the Board of Guardians.
‘What d‘yer mean ?‘ she asked, her eyes blazing. ‘Are they gooin‘ ter stop yer doin‘ t‘caretekkin‘ then ?‘
Jim explained patiently.
‘A s‘ll ‘ave ter declare it, love ! Y‘ave to ! Any money as yer get beside t‘Relief money y‘ave ter declare !‘
‘Awright !‘ she replied. ‘Declare it then ! That dun‘t mean yer won‘t get it, though !‘
‘No, but don‘t yer see ? Whatever I earn above t‘Relief money ‘as to be tekken off us ! Well, off t‘Relief, if yer like !‘
She looked at him dumbstruck, white and appalled at such injustice.
‘D‘yer mean ter say as they‘ll stop yer caretekkin‘ money out o‘ t‘Vestry money ?‘
‘Aye, lass, that‘s just what A do mean !‘
‘An‘ ‘ave yer towd ‘em yet ? About what yer get for t‘caretekkin‘ ?‘
He shook his head.
‘No, not yet. We s‘ll ‘ave ter wait till t‘Guardian feller comes. Then we ‘ave to tell ‘im everythin‘. That‘s t‘Law, d‘yer see ?‘
Lizzie was all but beside herself with wrath and righteous indignation. And, to add to her store of fury, she knew only too well that her scrupulous husband would not for one moment be persuaded to hide the knowledge of his extra earnings.
Her own scruples, always more pliant than her man‘s, were at once put aside as she set herself to devising ways of outwitting ‘them folk at t‘Vestry‘. It was into the teeth of this storm that Moss sailed, all unknowing, in defence of the tradition of new clothes at Whitsuntide, and met a gale where he had looked for a mere cap of wind.
‘Owd yer noise !‘ said his mother, and to any but Moss it would have been clear that she was greatly preoccupied. ‘D‘yer think as A‘m made o‘ money ?‘
Moss, still blithely unaware of the domestic climate, was not prepared to lower his colours so easily.
‘Aw, Mam – !‘ he began, and then, suddenly brightening, ‘Couldn‘t yer mek me one, Mam ? Couldn‘t yer mek me a new sailor suit ? Wi‘ blue stripes on t‘collar, like ?‘
‘An‘ wheer d‘yer think t‘money‘s comin‘ from ter pay fer t‘material, eh ?‘
Then she saw the disappointment in his face, and said more gently,
‘Na, look, love ! If A could get yer a sailor suit fer Whitsuntide, A‘d get yer one. Yer know that ! But we simply can‘t affooard it ! Yer‘ll ‘ave to goo in yer best suit ! A‘ll clean it up ‘n iron it like, an‘ nob‘dy‘ll know !‘
She suspected that this was not the last word, and that she would be called upon to withstand a running fire of Moss‘s ‘mitherin‘‘ until Whitsun was safely past. But, to her astonishment, within a few days his complaints ceased, and for some reason she could not define, he gave no hint of returning to the subject. She could think of no possible explanation for this state of affairs, for Moss, made in his father‘s image not to mention his mother‘s, was nothing if not stubborn. This sudden capitulation was quite unlike him, and at length her curiosity overcame her better judgement.
‘A‘m glad ter see as yer‘ve accepted it, love,‘ she said. ‘But wi‘ times like this, there just in‘t any money fer new clothes !‘
‘Aw, that‘s awright, Mam,‘ he said, carelessly. ‘A‘m gerrin‘ a new sailor suit, any road !‘
She turned him round sharply and searched his face.
‘Yer doin‘ what ?‘
‘A‘m gerrin‘ a new sailor suit ! A‘ve sent fer it !‘
‘Yer‘ve done what !‘
‘A‘ve sent fer it, Mam ! Mester Shepherd at Sunday School allus says as if yer pray ‘ard enough an‘ y‘ave enough faith yer can move mountains !‘
‘Oh, ‘e does, does ‘e ? An‘ wheer does Mester Shepherd suppose as t‘money‘s comin‘ from ter pay fer it, eh ?‘
‘Oh, yer don‘t need any money, Mam,‘ her son replied.
‘Don‘t need any money ? Are yer daft or summat ?‘
‘It says so in t‘paper, Mam ! On t‘advertizement ! Send no money, it says ! Jus‘ like that ! Look, A‘ll show yer !‘
He ran to find the newspaper in which he had first read such wondrous tidings. What a surprise it‘ll be, he had thought on reading it. What a surprise !
His mother followed the small finger on the page, and looked from the advertisement to Moss‘s beaming face.
‘An‘ you‘ve sent fer this sailor suit on t‘strength o‘ that ?‘
‘Yes, Mam ! It‘s t‘answer to me prayers ! Yer just ‘ave to ‘ave faith !‘
Lizzie hated herself, knowing that she must quench the light in his eyes. Carefully, she explained, almost in tears at what she must do.
‘Yer soft a‘porth, our Moss !‘ And he looked up into her face quickly, puzzled by the tenderness in her voice. ‘Don‘t yer see as it‘s just a trick ter get yer to send fer summat on tick ? Nob‘dy gives owt away in this world, love ! Y‘ave ter scrat fer it !‘
The sudden kindness did what her anger could hardly have achieved. Moss broke into a storm of tears, no longer tears of anger or frustration but of bitter loss. Indeed, indeed, there would be no sailor suit for Whitsuntide.
Horace Parker, himself a worshipper at Hensley Street Chapel, and a postman and a Chapel Steward to boot, came with the parcel during school hours, and Lizzie, knowing what she must do, was grateful for her son‘s absence.
‘A‘m sorry, Mester Parker,‘ she said. ‘It‘ll just ‘ave ter goo back !‘ And she explained the whole sorry circumstance.
He understood only too well why she could not accept delivery. As one in secure employment himself, he knew what those less fortunate were going through. Every penny, every halfpenny counted. One small extravagance, one needless indulgence, and a family which now walked on a thin crust of decency and respectability could break through into a mire of debt and ultimate penury and degradation. And then, and perhaps the hardest of all to bear, the cold hand of charity might be stretched out to them, breaching their final defences and taking from them their last comfort, their pride and their independence.
All that day Lizzie was troubled by what she had been forced to do. It was not made easier to bear by its harsh necessity, and she wasted much of her store of nervous energy in trying to devise some way in which even now she might gratify her son‘s wishes. She knew that to be without new clothes at the Whitsuntide Sing was the mark of real poverty. It set a child apart.
Suddenly she had an idea at once so appalling and so dazzling that she knew that, unless she took action at once, a second thought might stay her hand. She tore off her apron, put on her drab respectable Sunday coat, skewered her sensible hat to her hair with a jet-encrusted hat-pin, and set off.
When Jim returned from his chapel duties that evening, she let him eat his meal in silence before she opened fire.
‘When‘s that Guardian feller comin‘ ?‘ she asked at last.
Jim put aside his knife and fork and looked up, startled by the suddenness of the question.
‘A don‘t know,‘ he replied. ‘We s‘ll be gettin‘ notice any day now, A reckon. Why ?‘
‘Well, when ‘e comes, yer to say nowt about t‘chapel money !‘
Jim picked up a book and settled himself to read. He had been expecting this, but, so far as he was concerned, the matter was settled and there was no point in further discussion.
‘Na, don‘t talk daft, love,‘ he said, mildly. ‘We ‘ave to declare it ! We ‘ave ter declare everythin‘ ! An‘ we even ‘ave ter declare t‘pianner in t‘front room ! Everythin‘, d‘y‘ear ? That‘s t‘Law !‘
‘Neer mind t‘Law,‘ she replied. ‘From now on yer‘ll be doin‘ t‘chapel job voluntary !‘
‘A‘ll be doin‘ what ?‘
‘Yer doin‘ it voluntary ! It‘s all arranged !‘
‘Oh, it is, is it ? An‘ oo‘s arranged it then ?‘
‘Ted Castledine,‘ she replied. ‘‘Oo else ? ‘E‘s t‘treasurer ter t‘chapel stewards, in‘t ‘e ?‘
Jim weighed the information for a moment.
‘Well, if that‘s ‘ow they want it,‘ he said at length. ‘Yer do realize, though, as it dun‘t mek a ‘aporth o‘ difference ? We shan‘t be any better off fer ‘is arrangement !‘
‘That‘s just it,‘ Lizzie replied. ‘E‘s not gooin‘ ter pay t‘money ter you – !‘
She stopped as she saw him putting down his book with studied deliberation. Then, knowing that this was the hurdle she must surmount at all costs, she went on,
‘‘E‘s gooin‘ ter pay it ter me !‘
Jim rose to his feet, and began to speak quietly and incisively,
‘Na, look ‘ere, Lizzie ! Will yer mind yer own business about chapel matters ? A ‘ave ter declare that money, d‘y‘understand ? A ‘ave ter declare it ! Whether A get it or not meks no difference ! A ‘ave ter declare it ! That‘s the Law !‘
Lizzie braced herself for the final onslaught on her husband‘s uprightness, the quality she loved in him and which made him such an abiding tower of strength to her.
‘Ted Castledine‘ll tell t‘Booard o‘ Guardians as yer do that job voluntary !‘
‘‘E never will !‘ Jim replied. ‘Yer should know Ted Castledine better than that ! An‘ whether ‘e does or not meks no difference. A‘m not tellin‘ t‘Booard o‘ Guardians as A get nowt fer workin‘ at t‘chapil !‘
‘Oh yes, you are, Jim Garrett !‘ Lizzie said. She rose to her feet, faced him squarely and fought to keep the inner trembling out of her voice. ‘Unless, o‘ coorse, yer want to mek a liar out o‘ me ?‘
‘An‘ what d‘yer mean bi that ?‘
‘A mean as A towd Ted Castledine as ‘e‘s got ter tell t‘Booard o‘ Guardians as yer do that job voluntary !
Jim‘s face was a study.
‘An‘ even if A did agree, which A shan‘t, ‘oo‘s gunna tell Ted Castledine ter keep ‘is mouth shut ?‘
‘There‘s no call fer you to bother yer ‘ead about that,‘ she said, scenting victory at last. ‘It just so ‘appens as A know Ted Castledine better than yer think. An‘ A ‘appen to know summat about ‘im as‘ll keep ‘is trap shut, choose ‘ow many Booards of‘ Guardians ask ‘im about that chapil job. Neer mind what it is,‘ she broke in, as Jim made to speak. ‘It all ‘appened a long time ago, an‘ it‘s between ‘im an‘ me. But A‘ll tell yer this much. If it ever got known, ‘e wouldn‘t be t‘Chapil Treasurer no moor !‘
‘That may be,‘ Jim replied. But A‘m not ‘avin‘ no lies on my conscience !‘
‘They‘ll not be on your conscience,‘ she replied, smoothly, knowing now that the battle was won. ‘They‘ll be on mine ! An A‘ll tell yer this, Jim Garrett, A s‘ll lose no sleep over it. There‘s folks in London as never ‘as margarine an‘ condensed milk on their bread, but allus best butter an‘ strawberry jam. An‘ they‘ve got a damn sight moor on their conscience than A s‘ll ‘ave on mine wi‘ that one lie ! Any law as can tell a man – a good man – as ‘e‘s got ter declare ‘is family‘s bread out o‘ their mouths like that dun‘t deserve to be kept. The good Lord‘ll decide between them an‘ me, an‘ it‘s nowt to do wi‘ you. So you‘ll keep yer mouth shut, d‘y‘ear ? Unless yer want ter see me gooin‘ down t‘line ?‘
With that question, Jim was beaten and he knew it. The thought of prison for his Lizzie quashed his last forebodings. He knew, too, that he was no match for Lizzie in this mood. But he might have been astonished to know how much her victory had taken out of her, and how even now she was quivering inwardly from the effects of her ordeal. She knew how narrowly won was that victory, but she knew, too, that it was complete. Jim would never let her down, never.
They sat in silence for a time while dusk came down upon Grimesmoor, and Moss, coming in from play, was all unaware that he entered on a field which had just seen a momentous battle, and that life was returning, however uneasily, to normality.
The sudden rat-tat on the door startled them all. Moss ran to the window and pulled aside the curtain.
‘A think it‘s t‘postman, Mam !‘
‘Don‘t be soft, love,‘ his mother said. ‘A postman ? At this time o‘ night ?‘
She began to rise, but Moss was before her, and it was his shout of pure delight that caused her to rise once more and hurry to the door.
‘Mam ! It‘s come ! Me sailor suit !‘
Lizzie lifted reproachful eyes to the postman as Moss brushed past her, tearing at the wrappings of the parcel.
‘It‘s awright, Lizzie,‘ Horace Parker said quietly. ‘It‘s not a question o‘ charity, or owt like that ! So yer‘ve no call to fret yersen !‘
‘What‘s it all about then, Mester Parker ?‘
‘Well, it‘s like this,‘ he replied. ‘A towd t‘lads down at t‘Sooartin‘ Office about your Moss an‘ ‘is sailor suit. They did laugh, A can tell yer. An‘ then one of ‘em said, ‘Ere, why don‘t we ‘ave a whip round an‘ give t‘lad a present fer Whitsuntide ? So theer it is, love, a present fer your Moss from t‘lads down at t‘Sooartin‘ Office, that‘s all !‘
He turned on his heel to go, his ordeal by diplomacy over.
‘Will yer come in an‘ ‘ave a cup o‘ tea, Mester Parkin ?‘ Lizzie managed to say.
‘No, thankyer, love. A won‘t if yer don‘t mind. A‘m just on me way ‘ome, d‘yer see ? Besides, A reckon your Moss‘ll be wantin‘ all your attention in two or three minutes ! Good neet to yer, love !‘
And he strode off down the flagged walk with some of the regal dignity of those other Wise Men.
Lizzie turned at the door at her son‘s insistent cry of ‘Look, Mam ! Look !‘
At first she did not see him clearly, for her eyes dazzled.
‘A towd yer, Mam ! A towd yer ! Y‘ave to ‘ave faith, yer see ! If y‘ave enough faith yer can move mountains !‘