It was Whit Tuesday. For three days now the steel mills had been silent, the furnaces cooling, the canyons between the workshops echoing and still. The May morning sun streamed down on a Grimesmoor and a people entirely unaccustomed to such clear air.
Moss had awakened with the sun in all the exuberance of his own Springtime of nine years. He clattered out of the backyard and along the entry, which rang to the sound of his studded boots like the inside of a bell.
The day promised to be a scorcher. Small pools of tar were already oozing up between the granite setts of the cobbled street. Cats dozed on doorsteps that on any other day would have been places of peril to them. The sooty iron railings on the sunnier side of the street were no longer chill to the touch.
The few children who were up and about were already on their way to the Rec, there to lead the blear-eyed and unshaven fairground workers a fine old dance. On any other Whit Tuesday, Moss might have been of their number. But not today. Today he had other and more momentous affairs in hand. He trotted down Fern Street, turned to the right in the direction of the Three Crowns, and stopped dead, almost robbed of his breath by the splendour of the spectacle.
There it was ! The crown and the symbol of the day. Reared up behind the wall of the pub, a wooden mast, all of thirty feet high. The gleaming surface, almost white in the bright sunshine, planed and honed to a glassy smoothness, awaited only the soft soap, the contestants, and the crowd of onlookers.
And this year Joe was taking part – Joe, almost a man now, stocky and broad of shoulder. Not that his parents knew of his intention to take part in the annual event, for they would surely have forbidden him to appear in such an ungodly rite held in such an iniquitous place. Indeed, he knew only too well that he must not be seen to set one foot inside the yard of a public-house, so Moss had been sworn to secrecy, and hot irons would not have got the secret out of him. He found it easy to honour, for he was longing to see the contest.
But even an adoration such as he felt for his older brother, and a conviction that with Joe all things were possible, could not quite still all his forebodings. His faith was sorely tested by the knowledge that in this trial of strength and skill very few succeeded.
He had come by the knowledge from a most reliable source – Albert Smith, of the bad teeth, the devilish smile, and the pipe that was seldom lit, unless the tobacco were given. If Albert could be believed, he himself had in his youth been a mighty exponent of the art of climbing the greasy pole, and one of the very few to have claimed the prize, and the cup that went with it. But that was many years ago, as even he conceded. Now in his age he was reduced to holding up the wall of the Three Crowns and boasting to small boys for want of a credulous audience.
‘Sithee, lad, it‘s like this. Fust, tha‘s got t‘ave reight build fer it, dusta see ? A gret lanky lad‘s no use fer t‘greasy powl. Tha wants a good stocky lad wi‘ some solid timber in ‘is legs. Tha sees, there‘s a secret i‘ this game, and it‘s this – there‘s no use i‘ trustin‘ to thi ‘ands ! It‘s not a bit o‘ good tryin‘ to ‘owd on wi‘ them. Besides, tha needs thi ‘ands fer gerrin‘ t‘soot out o‘ t‘bag, dusta see ? No, it‘s thi thighs. It all depends on thi thighs ! If tha can‘t keep a grip wi‘ them, tha‘rt done !‘
Moss thought of Joe, doubtless still sleeping soundly at home, and wondered, not for the first time, if Joe had the thighs for the job. True, he was short and stocky, like his father, and strong enough to lift Moss clear of the ground, swing him above his head, and hold him there squealing, half in fear, half delight.
But Joe was up against much older hands at the game, young men of more mature years and wider experience, and all of them old hands at climbing the pole. Joe had only sixteen years to his credit and this was his first year in the contest. Worse still, Moss had heard his mother say, only as recently as the week before, ‘Our Joe in‘t ‘alf shootin‘ up ! Next thing, ‘e‘ll be coortin‘, A shouldn‘t wonder !‘
Moss had no time for such fripperies as ‘coortin‘‘, which, in any case, was a term he but vaguely understood. But Joe‘s height was an altogether different matter. If Albert Smith was right about its drawbacks, and his mother right about Joe‘s ‘shootin‘ up‘, then his chances of success might be fewer this year, and next year might be too late.
He voiced his fears to his brother, to be rewarded with a curl of Joe‘s lip. His brother, it seemed, did not share Moss‘s opinion of Albert Smith as expert counsel.
‘‘Im ? That boozy owd bugger ? What‘s ‘e know about it ?‘
In vain did Moss recount Albert Smith‘s former triumphs. In vain did he repeat Albert Smith‘s insistence on stout thighs. In vain did he beseech Joe not to treat the advice too lightly.
‘‘E does know, our Joe ! ‘E does ! ‘E won t‘cup ‘issen when ‘e were a lad !‘
To which Joe replied, with more than a grain of truth, that if all those who bragged of having won the cup had actually done so, it would need a much bigger cup to engrave all the names on it. He reminded Moss for good measure that there had been years when the pole had defied all efforts to scale it, and when the money prize – but not the cup – had gone to the contestant who was adjudged to have reached the highest point. Joe himself inclined to the view that much depended on the draw. If you were drawn early, he said, when the pole had its full quota of soft soap, you hadn‘t much of a chance. Draw a higher number, he said, and a lot of the soap would have been removed by the earlier contestants. Then, given a bag of good rough soot mixed freely with fuller‘s earth, you had a better chance.
Moss looked at the yellowed face of the clock in Roper‘s window. Nine o‘clock. He knew that the draw would not be made until eleven o‘clock at the earliest, and wondered how he could fill up such a desert of time between now and then. He decided to make his way home and see whether Joe was up yet, and whether he felt himself to be in good shape. It was a decision he regretted the moment his mother clapped eyes on him.
‘Oh, theer y‘are, our Moss ! Yer Dad‘s been lookin‘ fer you !‘
‘What for, Mam ?‘
Lizzie was well accustomed to that ingenuous look on the face of her son.
‘Yer know right well what for ! Yer‘ve got that brass to clean at t‘chapil, seein‘ as yer got out of it last Sat‘day. An‘ well you know it !‘
His heart sank. He had clean forgotten the promise made so blithely only three days earlier. Not for the first time he cursed his fate in having been born the son of a chapel caretaker. Cleaning the chapel brass was, he knew, a three-hour job at least. The greasy pole contest would be all over by the time it was finished. Worse; having been by Joe sworn to secrecy, an oath accompanied by lurid threats, he could not now plead the greasy pole contest in extenuation, or his mother might get to know of Joe‘s part in it.
‘Aw, Mam, it teks hours !‘
But even as he protested, he knew it was futile. He could not dispute the fact that the chore had been postponed from the Saturday by his father‘s unexpected and welcome decision to award a holiday. That cat wouldn‘t fight again, and he knew it.
His mother took in the situation at a glance.
‘T‘longer you stand theer mitherin‘, our Moss, t‘longer it‘ll tek yer !‘
He ran headlong to the chapel, desperately searching for stratagems and dismissing them as soon as invented, and burst in upon his father, who was dusting the brown varnished pulpit, the very job that he himself had been called from three days before.
All but incoherent, and gasping for breath, Moss cried,
‘Dad, can A goo in time to see t‘end o‘ t‘Feast Walk ?‘
Jim Garrett looked up and was on the point of refusing, and of adding to the refusal a rebuke to his son on the evil of neglecting his duties, when he caught Moss‘s eye, and saw something there which caused him to temper his words.
‘Look !‘ he said. ‘Yer‘ve got a couple o‘ hours almost. If A find yer‘ve done a good job, yer can goo at twelve, an‘ finish it after dinner !‘
Moss‘s scowl was purely for form‘s sake. Inside, his heart was singing. Even this much grace far exceeded his expectations.
He clattered downstairs to fetch the box of cleaning rags and metal polish. Back upstairs, he tackled, as he had long learned to do, the hardest job first, the cleaning of the brass strip which surrounded the doormat in the chapel porch. It was a wearisome job, for the feet of the worshippers, bringing in the grit from the street, left long scratches in the metal. An enormous amount of elbow-grease was needed if the scratches were not to show tell-tale streaks of white in the polished surface of the brass when the job was done.
He decided to try harder than ever so as to ensure that he passed inspection, and became so engrossed in this, and his other tasks, that it was his father who told him that time was up.
‘Off yer goo then!‘ he said. ‘An‘ just remember this, son -– ! It‘s allus duties first an‘ rights after, d‘y‘ear ?‘
Moss scarcely heard him for he was already away, the fear of missing the contest lending wings to his studded boots.
As he drew nearer the Three Crowns he realized with dismay that the contest was already well under way. The sight and sound of the crowd spurred him on. He was in despair lest he had missed Joe‘s attempt.
He skidded to a halt by Roper‘s window, where the details of the draw were pinned up, written with immense care in Herbert Roper‘s clerkly hand.
There were thirty contestants.
Joe was drawn twenty-fourth.
His heart gave a leap of joy. So Mester Shepherd was right, he told himself. If y‘on‘y prayed ‘ard enough, yer prayers were granted.
The crowd surrounding the wall of the pub yard was some twenty to thirty feet deep. Moss dived in among the trousered legs and the hopsack skirts and aprons, paying no heed to the cries of ‘‘Oo‘s that ? Come back ‘ere, yer little devil, you !‘ And at last he found himself in the front row, too close to the wall to see more than the top two-thirds of the pole, and heard the cry of ‘Competitor Number Eight ! Ernest Cartwright !‘
It was some time before Competitor Number Eight appeared above the pub wall, making his fleeting bid for fame. It was a vain bid. Barely six feet above the wall, the youth reached behind him into his bag for another handful of soot and fuller‘s earth. But his sudden move was incautious and ill-prepared. The bag did not come easily to hand, and the sudden shift of weight was his undoing. His grimy hands clutched uselessly at the pole, his legs gripped it convulsively, but all to no avail. He plummeted down to land on the straw bales about which Moss had been told but which he had never seen. Competitor Number Eight‘s bid was over for that year.
Moss‘s eyes went to the top of the pole. The small Union Jack fluttered there, apparently still untaken – unless someone had already succeeded and the flag had been replaced. He called to Arnold Sutcliffe, on the other wing of the crowd,
‘Arnold ! ‘As anybody ‘ad it dahn yet ?‘
Arnold shook his head, just as the announcement came for Competitor Number Nine.
Now began a time of agony for Moss. Fifteen more contestants before Joe appeared. Fifteen chances that the flag might be taken, and the next contestant then required to place the flag between his teeth and replace it. And if he, or any later contestant should succeed, there would have to be a decider with the cup going to him who then climbed the highest. He tried to console himself with the knowledge that a decider was a rare event, much rarer than for a single contestant to take the flag. But if anyone did reach it, and then Joe managed it, there would have to be a decider and the agony would be prolonged. He could hardly bear to look.
But one by one the contestants were eliminated, and it began to look as though the flag might survive unclaimed. Moss began to wonder whether Joe had been right about the luck of the draw.
Number Twenty failed. Number Twenty-one. Then Number Twenty-Two, going great guns, climbed to within three feet of the top, inched up another foot and, with Moss below teetering on the edge of despair, clutched at the flag. It seemed to be all over but the cheering. But the contestant had been too eager. With his legs vainly clutching at the pole, he plummeted down, to roars of disappointed laughter.
Number Twenty-three failed long before the half-way stage.
Over the hubbub, the voice called,
‘Contestant Number Twenty-four ! Joseph Garrett !‘
Moss‘s stomach lurched and tightened. He felt suddenly cold and sick.
A long pause. Nothing seemed to be happening. He wondered what could have gone wrong.
Then the familiar head appeared above the wall, moving slowly and steadily.
A voice from somewhere behind Moss growled,
‘That‘s reight, lad ! A allus fancy a slow starter, mesen !‘
There was a murmur of agreement, mingled with uneasy laughter and some disapproval of the interruption. Moss kept his eyes steadfastly on the figure of Joe.
A third of the way and more, and Joe stopped.
There was an audible indrawing of breath. Moss‘s breath seemed to stop entirely.
But Joe showed no concern.
Moss‘s own thighs ached in sympathy with the grip of Joe‘s thighs on the pole. Then, slowly and with great deliberation, Joe reached behind him for the bag and drew forth a handful of soot. Moss noticed with approval how sweetly the bag came to hand.
Still obviously gripping hard with his thighs, Joe reached up slowly and cautiously, and with his free hand spread the soot and fuller‘s earth liberally over the surface of the pole above him. Nor was he satisfied with one handful. Then he replaced his hand on the pole and inched himself up another foot. Another eighteen inches. He stopped again.
There was a murmur of approval from the crowd, which rose to a clamour as Joe reached for the bag again. Once more, with painful slowness, he covered the surface of the pole above him, and now with three handfuls of soot. Once more he inched himself up another two feet, and stopped again.
The same voice behind Moss growled again.
‘Yon lad‘s gorra ‘ead on ‘is shoulders, tha knows ! ‘E reckons as there‘ll be nobbut a skerrick o‘ soot on t‘top afe o‘ yon powl !‘
Moss caught his breath again as he remembered Albert Smith‘s words about the dangers of climbing slowly.
‘A know, A know ! It sounds awreight ! But it‘s a gamble, dusta see ? Tha‘rt gamblin‘ on thi thighs ‘owdin‘ out long enough to get thi theer !‘
And this, this was the gamble Joe was taking. Moss shivered with fear for his brother.
Four feet to go now. Less. Another two feet, and Joe might snatch at the prize.
But again he stopped, and again he covered the surface of the pole above him. Then slowly, more slowly now, for he was visibly tiring, he heaved himself up the narrowing, swaying mast.
Moss tried to lick his lips, but his mouth was too dry. Then, as if Joe had spoken to him, he knew what his brother was about. He had seen that earlier snatch at the flag and had learned his lesson.
He was now within reach of the flag.
His left hand reached up, up – and took a firm grip on the flat top of the pole.
Then with one last heave of his thighs, he reached up with the other hand.
And the prize was his.
The crowd which had lately been as silent as death, now let out its breath in one loud gasp, and erupted into prolonged cheers.
All but weeping with joy, Moss watched the white-faced Joe slide swiftly down the pole and vanish from sight. He told himself now that he didn‘t care if someone else climbed the pole that Joe had so carefully prepared. Joe had done it. Joe had done it. It was all that mattered.
And now an extra savour was added to the crowd‘s enjoyment of the event. Secure in the knowledge that whatever happened, the prize would be won this year, the onlookers could luxuriate in the prospect that even now Joe might find it snatched from his grasp.
But they were disappointed. Despite all Joe‘s careful treatment of the surface of the pole, no other contestant came within six feet of the top. The flag was not replaced,and Joe was the undisputed winner.
One by one, the crowd melted away, only the more ardent staying for the prize-giving in the pub yard. Moss stood rooted to the spot, his eyes never leaving the gate through which Joe would eventually come, and through which he was expressly forbidden to go.
And at last the victor came, bearing the cup, and Moss ran to meet him, his own cup brimming over.
But Joe had no eyes for his brother. He was looking past Moss to someone else.
A voice called ‘Joe ! A‘m ‘ere !‘
A girl‘s voice. He turned back to Joe, followed his eyes, turned again, and saw the girl.
Ellen Armitage ! A lass ! And she the one to share Joe‘s triumph !
He turned on his heels and ran blindly, blundering into one and then another member of the departing crowd, and at last reached the haven of his own backyard. And there he rested his forehead against the rough wood of his rabbit-hutch, and gave himself up to his misery.
Lizzie Garrett spread the clean white tea-cloth over the pancheon of dough and set it in the hearth to rise. Then she crossed to the sink to remove the last traces of pastry from her hands. As she passed the window she caught sight of Moss, and noticed the eloquent droop of his shoulders.
What‘s up wi‘ our Moss, A wonder ? she said to herself. ‘E looks as if ‘e‘s lost a bob an‘ found a tanner !
But then who would expect a woman, a mere woman, to understand such things ?