In their eager anticipation of Whitsuntide the godly of Grimesmoor were not alone. Their enthusiasm was shared by a greater number of their neighbours for whom the word ‘Pentecost‘ would have meant nothing, unless, perhaps, it happened to be the name of the favourite in the 3.30 at Doncaster Races.
For Whitsun in Grimesmoor was Feast Week, the dying remnant of a festival which might once have been accompanied by religious rites in an age when men were more pious – or perhaps more in awe of the priesthood than they were in the Year of Our Lord 1925.
Moss, in company with his fellows, knew nothing of any such association with the past. Like them, he celebrated the sacred and the secular with a happy impartiality.
There were few schooldays which dragged as wearily as that Friday, when every boy in the school was fully aware that the wagons would already be arriving, that even now the erection of the amusements and the sidshows would be going ahead in their absence on the ‘Rec‘, the name which mocked the vanity of those officials who had baptised it ‘The Grimesmoor Recreation and Sports Ground‘.
When they were finally released from bondage, the boys descended upon the fairground, where the grimy and red-eyed roustabouts greeted them with something far removed from a hearty welcome.
By the early evening, all roads in Grimesmoor led to the Rec, now covered with an assortment of fairground paraphernalia – roundabouts, coconut-shies, and sideshows – and in the background, hissing and pulsating like huge sleeping monsters, the steam engines that generated the power. All in all, a sight designed to transport any healthy boy to the seventh heaven of delight.
But the truth must be told. Grimesmoor Feast Week was not one of the engagements that had showmen fighting for the pitch. The sum total of the amusements amounted to little more than the ‘cocks an‘ ‘orses‘, the ‘chairyplanes‘, a row of some six wooden swing-boats, and a small roundabout for the toddlers. Besides this, there were two coconut shies where the nuts seemed so firmly wedged in their cups that it was a popular belief that it would need a howitzer shell to dislodge them, one or two other sideshows, a palmist with an improbable name and of unconvincing appearance, for when once she had changed out of her finery she was indistinguishable from the other fairground wives who in the main resembled nothing so much as sacks of potatoes Added to these delights, there were one or two rather seedy ‘wonders‘ – for some inexplicable reason, bearded ladies seemed to be plentiful – and very little else.
But that little else included one character who never failed to intrigue Moss with his utter and complete singularity. He was a little man, even by Moss‘s standards, and was always dressed whatever the weather in a frayed raincoat, green with age, which reached to his ankles, a bowler which had once presumably been black but which was now edged around the brim with a band of funereal green where the dye had faded. He also wore, winter and summer alike, a dewdrop on the end of a long and beaky nose.
This showman‘s stock in trade was a small bagatelle table covered with a threadbare baize as thin as paper. In the centre of this table, when all was set up for business, was a billiard ball standing in a chalked circle and bearing on its upper surface a pile of pennies which varied in number according to the state of business, being reduced when business was brisk and increased when business was sought.
The customer was provided with another billiard ball which might once have been spherical and a stubby cue roughly one-third of the length to which billiard cues normally run. His aim was then to drive his ball against the one in the centre, thus causing one or more of the pennies to fall outside the chalk circle – on the face of it, an easy thing to do. But what the showman‘s customers never began to understand was that the showman‘s faith was backed by the natural law of inertia. He was betting that the law would work, and his customer was betting that it would not, and it was common to see a customer, red-faced with annoyance and exasperation asking for another penn‘orth, and again failing to cause a single penny to fall outside the circle.
Moss quite failed to understand why this should be so, but he couldn‘t fail to notice that not once had he seen a customer so much as win his own penny back, a masterly demonstration of how, in human affairs, hope constantly triumphs over cold reason.
There was also a man who guessed your weight for a small fee. If he got it wrong, which wisely he contrived to do from time to time, he would present the lucky winner with a ‘Peruvian gold ring‘ – which, to Moss‘s eyes, was little different from the sort of thing he sometimes found to his keen disappointment at the bottom of a ‘ha-penny lucky bag‘.
Still, the meagreness of the entertainment was evenly balanced by the poverty of the customers. And if the standard of entertainment was unsophisticated, that too matched the expectations of those who came to be entertained.
To Moss, every item of the scene was lit by his own rich imagination. For weeks after the fair had gone he would be dreaming of the vagrant gipsy life, though he would have confessed to some uneasiness about the language used by the show-people, which was more colourful than he was accustomed to and of a kind which his mother would have forbidden him to hear, let alone speak.
Once he had drunk his fill of the wonderful scene on the Friday, he could hardly bear to wait for his Saturday penny on the morrow, and the fever of his impatience was not lost on his father. No sooner had Moss arrived at the chapel than his father called him from the pulpit where he was just beginning the first of his weekly duties. Moss trotted down the stairs and looked up at his father, who was standing there with a slow smile on his face and holding in his fingers two pennies.
‘‘Ere y‘are, son !‘ he said. ‘A reckon yer can find a use fer this, eh ?‘
‘Yes, Dad !‘
‘Awright, off yer go then !‘
‘What, now, Dad ?‘
‘Aye,‘ said his father. ‘A reckon it‘ll keep this once !‘
Then, as his son set off with only one thought in mind, Jim called him back.
‘‘Ere ! Just a minute ! Aren‘t yer forgettin‘ summat ?‘
Moss looked sheepish. He realized at once that he ought to have remembered what a stickler his Dad was for what he called ‘gratitude‘.
‘Thank you, Dad !‘
‘That‘s better, son. But think on. The work‘ll ‘ave to be done. Yer can‘t do it Monday because yer’ll be gooin‘ ter t‘Park, so it‘ll have to be Tuesday. Don‘t ferget now !‘
‘Awright, Dad !‘
‘Right, off yer go !‘
Moss would have promised anything at that moment, and quite forgot that in his eagerness to taste the sweets of today he might be mortgaging the sweets of the morrow. Whit Tuesday, too, had its delights, which he was thoughtlessly squandering.
Once arrived at the fairground, he made first for the ‘cocks an‘ ‘orses‘ which were his especial delight, and for a few minutes he was transported. He was always intrigued by the way the pipe-organ blared at him as he sailed past on his wide-nostrilled steed, and how the music then faded as he swept round to the far side. He loved, too, the small kick that came every time the horse reached the high point of its travel, and again at the low point. He was always torn by a desire to try one of the cockerels, but every time realized that it would mean forsaking the chance to ride on a beautiful horse, and at the last moment he always played safe.
Once the ride was over, and all too soon, he was now torn by all the ways in which he might spend his remaining penny. He had almost decided on a ride in the ‘chairyplanes‘ – though, to speak truth, he was not at all sure whether he had the courage to try – when he heard a voice calling him and turned to see Alec Willett approaching.
The inward debate now became an outward one, with Alec, who was less imaginative and therefore less apprehensive, praising the merits of the ‘chairyplanes‘ and Moss now fiercely pressing the claims of the ‘cocks an‘ ‘orses‘.
Alec tried another tack.
‘Tell thi what – ! Let‘s both ‘ave a goo at rolling t‘pennies ! An‘ then if we win summat, we can goo on t‘chairyplanes and t‘cocks an‘ ‘orses !‘
Moss felt a pang of alarm. The chance of avoiding the hazards of the ‘chairyplanes‘ was welcome, but he had a shrewd idea that he might be called upon to brave a greater hazard, his mother‘s displeasure. He had a shrewd idea that she would regard rolling the pennies as gambling, and that his father‘s view would be identical. The ‘Thou shalt not‘s’ of the nonconformist faith applied not only to strong drink but to gambling in all its forms. There was little doubt in Moss‘s mind that rolling pennies was gambling, and he said so.
Alec poured scorn on such an idea, and at last succeeded in converting Moss to the belief that rolling pennies called for skill, just as much as the coconut shy. But even then, Moss was less than enthusiastic about committing his last penny to one short venture, and was only persuaded to it by Alec‘s agreeing to share any winnings with him.
The eager Alec took first turn, and was quickly abased. His penny, as if by intention, rolled straight down the slide to the corner of a square and sat there without any ceremony, covering two lines. The rake in the hand of the showman snaked out and swallowed Alec‘s entire fortune.
Moss immediately got cold feet, and would have withdrawn, but Alec was having none of it.
‘Eigh up !‘ he cried. ‘Fair‘s fair ! Tha promised|!‘
Resigned, but with a heavy heart, Moss placed his penny in the groove of the slide, and allowed it to roll.
‘Tha‘s sent it too quick !‘ Alec cried. The penny was heading straight for the trough at the far side of the table, and Moss‘s heart all but stopped. Then, taking a wide sweep as its momentum lessened, the penny came round, began to roll in ever smaller circles, and at last sat down squarely in the centre of a square marked ‘Three‘.
Before either could raise an exultant shout, the rake came out and swept the penny away. There was now no proof that it had ever been there.
Their cries were wholly of righteous indignation, but they fell on deaf ears.
‘What‘s up then, marrer ?‘ the showman asked.
‘That penny were in t‘three !‘ cried Moss.
The showman shook his head.
‘Na look, son, if it ‘ad been in that square A should ‘ave paid yer, shouldn‘t A ? But it wasn‘t, yer see !‘
Moss was speechless with rage, and Alec was in no better case. But when all seemed lost, a voice behind them said,
‘Eigh up, thee !‘
The boys wheeled round. A stranger, and with his eyes on the showman.
‘A saw that !‘ the stranger said.
The showman looked at the newcomer, and some of his professional assurance seemed to leave him. It had been on the line, he insisted.
But the stranger would have none of it. Though Moss did not know it, he himself was no stranger to the man, who knew and admired Jim Garrett.
Moss saw that the man was evidently a steelworker like his father, for he wore in his face the badge of his trade, the bright pink burn-marks on forehead, nose, cheeks and chin. He was also possessed of the sort of physique which could take a shovelful of silica, and quoit it thirty-odd feet to the back of a Siemens-Martin open-hearth furnace as though it were a feather.
The stall-keeper had clearly been taking this in, for he seemed to relent and tossed a penny towards Moss.
‘Awright !‘ he said. ‘‘Ave it again !‘
‘Bloody likely !‘ said the stranger, coolly.
‘Awright then,‘ said the showman, tossing over two more coins. ‘Theer‘s ‘is money !‘
‘Tha‘t not gunna gerraway wi‘ that !‘ said the stranger. ‘A‘ve seen thi play t‘same mucky trick twice !‘
The showman protested. Where was the evidence ? he appeared to imply. Anyway, even if it had happened, no one was complaining.
‘That‘s up to them,‘ said the furnaceman. ‘Anyway, if they don‘t want to claim it, that can gi‘e it to this lad ‘ere !‘
This, it seemed, was something the showman was not prepared to concede, short of a fight, at least in the figurative sense. The steelworker quickly made it clear that for his part he was prepared to make the figurative literal.
‘Tha can please thisen, tha knows,‘ he said, in the sort of easy, good-humoured tone that seemed to imply that he was enjoying the conversation, whatever anyone else was getting out of it. ‘Tek thi pick ! Eether keep that tanner thisen, or else gi‘e it to t‘lad ‘ere ! It‘s up to thee !‘
And then, as the showman still appeared reluctant, the furnaceman‘s voice suddenly took on a cold edge.
‘But A‘ll tell thi what – ! If that dun‘t gi‘e ‘im that other threepence, A s‘ll come o‘er theer an‘ A s’ll gi‘e thee a bloody good ‘idin‘ fer tryin‘ it on wi‘ a bit of a kid ! So think on !‘
The showman spent no time at all in thinking on, and with a bad grace threw the other three pennies towards Moss. Moss scrabbled them up and turned with shining eyes to the stranger, to be rewarded with a fat wink.
He and Alec lost no time in putting some distance between themselves and the stall, before there could be any further change in their fortunes. Their delight was so intense that it was some time before they began to quarrel over the spoils.
It was decided at last that they would first sample the delights of the ‘chairyplanes‘ and the ‘cocks an‘ ‘orses‘, and decide about the balance later.
With Alec beside him, Moss was obliged to screw his courage to the sticking place and take his seat in one of the small seats of the ‘chairyplane‘. A showman in dungarees showed him how to fasten the chain across the seat for safety‘s sake, a precaution which did nothing at all to reinforce Moss‘s shrinking spirit.
He was not to know it at the time, but years later, taking his seat in a plane for the first time, he would recall the ‘chairyplane‘ and realize that then, as now, his imagination was dwelling on the possibility of disaster to the exclusion of all else. He could see his defenceless, cowering body being hurled out into space by some minor defect in the machine, and the image completely unnerved him.
When they finally reached terra firma once more, he returned Alec‘s ‘Warn‘t it great ?‘ with a fervour that was entirely feigned. The ride on the roundabout, however, made up for it and all that was left was to decide on the balance.
The decision was almost made for them by a raucous voice.
‘Come along now, everybody ! One more ticket for the Ghost Train !‘
Moss edged nearer to the stall, his eyes on the winking light moving down the list of stations. Almost without conscious thought, he stepped up to the stall before it was too late, and his last penny was gone.
However, the game did not start at once, for the stall-owner had been working the old dodge of ‘Who‘ll buy the last few tickets to give me a start ?‘
But at last the final ticket was sold, and the flashing light began to move down the list of stations in earnest, then flicking over to the other half of the destination board until it was no more than a blur as it gathered speed.
Moss looked at his ticket. Swindon. A town he had vaguely heard of, though he had no idea where it was. There was an icy feeling in the pit of his stomach. He was fervently wishing now that he had not been so impulsive, especially as he now saw that his last penny was gone and that Alec still had his.
The flashing light was slowing now, and it was again possible to see it flicking on and off behind the names of the stations. It approached Swindon, passed it, and flicked over to the left-hand list of names. Now it was moving much more slowly, and Moss saw with sinking heart that it was unlikely to reach Swindon.
It crept down the list of names on that side, flicked over to the right, drawing nearer and nearer to Swindon. But slowly, much too slowly.
Moving more slowly still, and, agonizingly, it stopped at Newcastle, seemed to hesitate for a moment, and moved on to Reading.
There it wavered for a moment, and moved on to Southampton. And there it stopped.
It was all over. Moss was almost sick with disappointment.
But no ! As though by an afterthought, the light flickered behind Southampton, flickered again, moved on to Swindon, and stopped again.
Moss held his breath, but there was no need. Swindon it was.
It was Alec who first found his breath.
‘Moss, tha‘s won !‘
Every eye turned to Moss, and he scarcely heard the stall-holder‘s words.
‘Any prize on the stall, son !‘
It seemed to him that there had never been a day in the whole of his life so good as this. And something seemed to tell him that such a day, a day so special, so far removed from the commonplace, ought to have some particular sign, some remembrancer.
His eye ranged quickly over the tawdry gifts that crowded the shelves of the stall, rejected all those which in a more sober moment he would have craved, and settled on a teapot. A small aluminium teapot.
Alec was almost beyond words.
‘A teapot ? What did tha want to get that for ?‘
Moss was ready with the answer.
‘A gorrit fer mi Mam !‘
He was almost home before the thought struck him that his mother might object to receiving a gift which was the fruit of gambling. He made up his mind to compromise with the truth by merely saying that he had won it, hoping that there would then be no further enquiry.
Lizzie was both astonished and delighted by this evidence of her son‘s thoughtfulness, the more so as there was a witness to the event in the person of Jim‘s sister, or ‘Auntie Moll‘ as Moss knew her, and something of a thorn in Lizzie‘s flesh as Lizzie knew her.
‘Ee, that‘s champion !‘ said Moll, clearly envious of her sister-in-law‘s good fortune. ‘How much did it cost yer to win it, Moss ?‘
The questions were coming too close for comfort, and Moss began to slide out of doors.
‘On‘y a penny !‘ he called over his shoulder.
‘Eigh up ! Just a minute !‘ his aunt called after him, and he was obliged to go back, to find Auntie Moll rummaging in her purse. She reached out a single coin and handed it to Moss.
‘Would yer like to see if yer can win me one ?‘
A single penny . . .
More to be away from further questioning and possible embarrassment than with any great enthusiasm, Moss took the penny and set off back to the Rec. But even before he got there, he had decided that sufficient unto the day was the virtue thereof, and that Auntie Moll‘s penny would do nicely for another ride on the ‘cocks an‘ ‘orses‘. And this time there was no Alec Willett to argue him out of the decision, or to bear witness to his sin.
He ran home to break the sad tidings to Auntie Moll that it hadn‘t been her lucky day, and satisfied a bad conscience by telling himself that he would have been most unlikely to win twice in one day.
He found such stifling easy in the broad light of day, but it was a different matter when it came to bed-time and his prayers. The faith his parents practised, and which their children willy-nilly absorbed, had in it much fierce and uncompromising Puritanism. The sense of sin which a later age was to deride was something they cultivated in themselves and instilled into their children, and not always with the dire consequences later outlined by psychologists, social commentators, and similar acrobatic performers on the human scene.
As he lay there, seeing the shadows lengthening in the evening light, Moss began to fear that his conscience might now keep him awake until darkness fell, when there would be other matters to trouble his mind. True, he had not been brought up in the practice of the confessional, but he had been taught a lively belief in the certainty that his sins would find him out.
For a while he contemplated the possibility of going downstairs to see whether his mother was in the frame of mind when it might be possible to tell her all, and actually got as far as the head of the stairs in pursuing this intention.
But the sound of his father‘s voice gave him second thoughts.
He turned to make his way back to bed, feeling that though confession might be good for the soul, there were times when it needed to be tempered with a little discretion.
As he did so, he caught the gist of his father‘s words, and stopped dead. He realized on the instant that his mother was retailing the news of the afternoon‘s events.
‘Miserable bitch !‘ he heard his father say, and was astonished and not a little shocked to hear such language from such a source. ‘An‘ she gi‘ed ‘im nobbut a penny to goo‘n win ‘er one ?‘
There was a sound from his mother, but it was impossible to make out the words. His father went on,
‘Yer mean ter say she din‘t even gi‘e ‘im another penny to ‘ave a ride on t‘cocks an‘ ‘orses ?‘
Again, Moss could not catch his mother‘s reply.
‘Well, A‘ve on‘y one thing ter say ter that,’ said his father. ‘A just ‘ope as our Moss ‘ad sense enough to goo an‘ ‘ave a ride wi‘ that penny. ‘E‘d already gi‘ed up one chance of a ride ter get you that teapot. A allus knew our Moll were stingy, but she gets worse. Serve ‘er damn well right ! She dun‘t deserve ter prosper !‘
There was the scrape of a chair, but Moss was back under the bedclothes before the kitchen door opened. He heard the familiar footsteps of his mother climbing the stairs to the front bedroom, and a few minutes later the sound of her feet descending the stairs again.
And as the kitchen door closed behind her, Moss, now perfectly at ease with his conscience, settled himself to sleep.