In those years, the ‘School‘ in Sunday School was no mere courtesy title. In the view of the Chapel Stewards and their minions, education ranked next after cleanliness for its nearness to godliness, even the Sabbath education of the amateurish kind provided at Hensley Street Chapel.
So the Garrett children, each in turn, were every year entered for the Hamelin Street Circuit Examination in Scriptural Knowledge, until in the fulness of time a full-time job, or a university education, or adolescent arrogance persuaded them that the time had come to put away childish things. True, there were those among their fellows who continued their studies along this path into adult life, but they were of the stuff from which Sunday School teachers and local preachers are fashioned. None of the Garrett brood, once childhood and youth as the offspring of a chapel caretaker were behind them, ever showed any desire to tread that road.
As Moss came to the age at which he was eligible to enter for the Scripture Examination he, too, was duly enrolled. Not that he chafed under this conscription. On the contrary, he looked forward with unfeigned eagerness to his initiation into the mysteries of ‘t‘Scripture Exam‘, and not least because of promised delights which went with the prize-giving ceremony.
Little by little he imbibed every detail of this event, until he knew that it entailed a journey to a distant and unknown part of Hallamside, not on one tram, but two – an unheard-of luxury. Then on the homeward journey, between the two tram rides, there was further bounty in the shape of a traditional ceremony which, in the eyes of the young candidates, made all the long hours of study worth while – the free meat-pie.
Not that Moss regarded the many verses of Holy Writ which he was required to stash away in his small head as a tedious chore to be endured for the sake of this final reward. Nor did he rebel at this age against the primitive and often unconvincing theology which the examination questions required him to trot out, and which an intelligent child of even Moss‘s tender years must sometimes have viewed with more than a passing doubt. Wax to receive and marble to retain, he was not at all averse to showing off his talents in that direction to a circle of admiring grown-ups, cooing over his prowess like so many pigeons.
In an age which regarded learning in much the same light as medicine, in that it could not be expected to do any good unless it tasted bad, the approach to education was universally held to call for stern endeavour and rolled-up sleeves. It was accepted that the Scripture Examination was certainly a hard furrow to hoe, and just as certainly no worse for that. So the noisy band which congregated on the first Tuesday evening was sadly depleted by the time the evening of the written examination came around. It was not a matter which caused dismay in the breasts of the authorities, who had scriptural evidence for their belief that many are called, but few chosen.
The syllabus was arduous enough, even for a generation steeped in the Good Book, and far beyond the preliminary hurdles of the Twenty-Third Psalm and the Lord‘s Prayer, both of which the candidates had seemingly digested with their mothers‘ milk. They were now required to stow away in their mental holds, and eventually unload without fault, whole cargoes of Holy Writ, apparently chosen at random from the Law and the Prophets, with sizeable chunks of the New Testament for good measure. By the time the hard core of the faithful had reached their early ‘teens, a few of them at least could call upon a veritable warehouse of verses from the Good Book, even if for most of them their grasp of the words was surer than their understanding of the meaning.
For some, and perhaps the majority, much of all this would be discarded and forgotten before they reached the age of indiscretion. For a minority, which would include Moss, a seam of gold-bearing ore was thus acquired which would run out only with the last syllable of their recorded time on earth.
It could hardly have been the prizes themselves which wound up the young candidates to a fever of anticipation as ‘t‘Exam‘ drew near. They were well aware that all who won prizes would be allowed to choose whatever books they fancied. They also knew that unless Mester Shepherd and the Stewards fancied them too they would have to think again. To Moss, who had never yet in his life held in his hands a book he could call his own, this was a small consideration.
So it came about, more by good luck than good management, that the first prize he ever won at the annual examination was one of the few volumes in the approved list which could have been heartily recommended by more informed literary critics than his Sunday School teachers, and one which planted a seed in him which would bear rich fruit. Even at this tender age, he was not unacquainted with the ring of bright words, but until now his appetite had been too voracious and too undiscriminating for his own good. Now he had a book which he could read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.
It was fortunate for him that he had been reared from his early days on a steady diet of the Authorised Version, or he might have found Bunyan‘s language hard going. But the style of ‘The Pilgrim‘s Progress‘ was by now so familiar to him that the words proved no obstacle at all, and he read and re-read the slim green volume (bound in real leather, a sumptuous offering, for it was the Third Circuit Prize), until it all but fell to pieces in his hands.
The result of this infatuation was a storehouse of quotation that was to astonish his doting parents and to furnish Moss himself with a source of enduring consolation in later hours of trial. Never after this, for instance, could he attend a funeral without hearing mental echoes of the trumpets sounding on the other side.
It was by no means the first book that Moss had loved, merely the first that he had loved and owned. An actual shortage of books in the Garrett household was unknown, even if they were all Scripture prizes, or school text-books, or library books. As each child grew and added another quota, there was no level surface in the entire house which did not bear its slithering pile, ever ready to cascade to the floor if a member of the family was so unwise as to try to add to, or subtract from, their number.
From time to time, Lizzie‘s protests, which usually went unheard, would come to a head. A pile of books would be exiled from the kitchen-cum-scullery-cum-dining-room-cum-living room at the rear of the house to the chilly ‘front room‘ with its air of dungeon damp and its hermetically-sealed front door. There the offending books would be piled on the floor, there being no such luxury as shelving for books in the entire Garrett household. And there they would lie, and there (or so it seemed to Lizzie) they would breed, for their number grew with each succeeding child and each succeeding year.
In this respect, Jim Garrett was no example to his family at all, as Lizzie never ceased to remind him. He never dreamed of putting a book away, even supposing that he could have found a place to put it. Like all his children, he devoured every word that passed even fleetingly before his eyes, and his taste was nothing if not catholic. He would read a school text-book with as much evident enjoyment as a novel or one of his own library books. And, when he had read his own, he read the library books and text-books which his family brought home. And the depth of his total absorption in a book, while the clamorous Bedlam of a large family raged around him, was a source of never-ceasing wonder to Lizzie.
Moss, in company with the rest of his family, was by now so accustomed to this state of affairs that it came as a revelation to him, as he grew older and his horizons widened, to find that there were homes in Hallamside that were not at all like his own, homes where a book was as rare as a gold brick. So it was his father‘s example, rather than any exhortation on his part, which persuaded successive children to embark on the annual round of the Scripture Examination, until the examination began to look like a Garrett family preserve, and many were the black looks as yet another member of that clan staggered home with a load of prizes, to add yet more learning to the family store, and yet more fuel to the fire of Lizzie‘s complaints.
The Sunday School teachers who volunteered their services in preparing the candidates were on the whole more well-intentioned than well-informed, and it was not at all unknown for a Garrett child to be ahead of his or her tutor. But lack of knowledge on their part was unlikely to daunt the teachers, coming as they did from a generation which had been reared in the faith that all things are possible to them that love the Lord.
There was one memorable occasion, just before his first Scripture Examination, when Moss learned the hard way that where ignorance is bliss it is often folly to draw attention to it.
Mester Shepherd, having heard his rough-polled charges recite in turn the set passage from the life of Noah (omitting, of course, any reference to his nakedness), began to make use of the story to deliver himself of a homily on the evils of strong drink and intemperance. This word ‘temperance‘ had been exercizing the mind of Moss, for he had looked it up in the dictionary, and found the definition there impossible to square with what he was now being taught. But to the worshippers at Hensley Street Chapel temperance meant not moderation in all things but total abstinence. One Sunday in the year, given the name of Temperance Sunday, was the day on which hell-fire and damnation were to be preached, in the belief that it might stiffen the faithful against any recourse to alcoholic liquors. It was an occasion for the Band of Hope to bring to bear all its powers of persuasion in coaxing babes scarce out of their mothers‘ arms into renouncing for ever all indulgence in strong drink, and for some prim Miss or other to recite moving verse on the lines of ‘Think of the Headache in the Morning‘. Astonishingly, such homilies were listened to in all seriousness by the wide-eyed congregation.
Fired with a sense of superiority in his new-found knowledge, Moss decided to share it with Mester Shepherd by introducing him to the purer meaning of the word ‘temperance‘, and received for his pains the customary treatment meted out to heretics the first time they raise their voices in public. He was told to be quiet.
He returned to the attack with more determination than discretion. Mester Shepherd, who had suffered Moss‘s importunities more than once, decided that sweet reason might be more effective.
‘Now, lads,‘ he said, ‘let‘s all think for a moment about what Maurice has just said, shall we ?‘ And he bestowed on his charges the kind of winning smile that might have curdled milk, and which certainly caused the children to curl with embarrassment. ‘I‘m sure you all know that there are people in this world who try to pretend that it isn‘t really a sin if it‘s just a little one, eh ? They don‘t drink beer, they say, only black beer from the herbalist‘s. Isn‘t that so ?‘
The boys made no answer, being not at all certain where all this was leading.
‘But alcohol is alcohol, boys. Never forget that ! Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging, and the devil goeth about like a wild beast, to beguile us, to trap us, each and every one of us, not with a great big wicked temptation, but with a small one that will surely lead to a bigger one, and a bigger one still.‘
By this time, the rest of the class had got Mester Shepherd‘s drift and, having heard it all before, were busy with their own affairs. Only Moss was still giving the teacher his undivided attention, and only then because he had a vested interest in trying to save Mester Shepherd from error.
‘So you see, Maurice, it‘s just as much a sin to believe that temperance means only a little alcohol – ‘
The teacher was now lost to the world, carried away with an excess of missionary zeal in the cause of ‘Temperance‘.
‘– just as much a sin, Maurice, as to say – as some people do – that oatmeal stout isn‘t really wicked, because the oatmeal is an anecdote to the alcohol – ‘
He got no further, for Moss, not noted for tact on such occasions, hooted with laughter. Mester Shepherd, quite unaware of his unfortunate malapropism, mistook the reason for the laughter, and, in sudden and most un-Christian wrath, unceremoniously boxed Moss‘s ears.
He was all penitence at once. In spite of a prim and starchy respectability, an obsessive desire for conformity in the Nonconformist faith, a humourless excess of zeal in being about his Father‘s business, and a tendency to stiff celluloid collars that were all but suicidal, Albert Shepherd was a good man and gentle at heart. He was one who suffered children gladly, even though there were times at the end of these sessions when there was little left of his tether. Such an act in him was untypical, and there was not a boy in his class who did not know it and wonder at the sudden outburst.
Moss was by no means perturbed, for he had a shrewd suspicion that the act which had silenced him had also stopped Mester Shepherd‘s mouth. There was now no possible chance of the teacher‘s relaying to his father the story of his son‘s indiscretion.
But Mester Shepherd‘s penitence had unforeseen and unhappy results. In his efforts to atone for what he felt to be an act of quite unjustified savagery on his part, he went out of his way to make much of his pupil, holding him up to the rest as a model of industry and rectitude, praising too effusively the speed with which he committed his verses to heart, and generally over-selling Moss‘s stock until it had no value in the market, and his classmates hated him with a virulence which boded him no good. Moss, all unaware of the danger in which he stood, preened himself in the sunlight of his teacher‘s favour until he hadn‘t a friend in the entire circle.
Their chance for revenge came on the night of the prize-giving. It was well that Mester Shepherd had insisted on taking all the prizes home in his attaché case , or Moss‘s precious books might have suffered damage. Assured of its safety, Moss could now luxuriate in the prospect of the forthcoming treat, and, bloated with rectitude, was all unaware of what lay in store for him.
The presentation over, there was still to come the event which most of the candidates undoubtedly rated higher in the scale than mere prizes, which in any case would probably gather dust in some cupboard. After all, they reasoned, yer could allus get books from t‘Library if yer want ‘em. But ‘ow often does some‘dy buy yer a meat-pie ?
No one could remember how the tradition had begun, or how the Stewards had been persuaded to foot the annual bill, but it was now an established custom for each candidate to partake of one meat-pie on the homeward journey. There were some uncharitable enough to suggest that some candidates had entered for the examination in the knowledge that, whether they passed or not, their mere presence at the examination qualified them to attend the prize-giving and to receive their pie.
Mester Shepherd always bought the pies from the same establishment, a small cooked-meat shop at the corner of Orchard Lane and, appropriately perhaps, on the opposite side of the road from the Education Offices. The proprietor, a Falstaff in a spotless white apron, and a splendid advertisement for the body-building virtues of his pies, would take each one in turn from the small oven which guaranteed that they would be piping hot inside, and then with practised care would pour a thin steaming gravy from a small jug into the holes in the lid of the pie. Imagination pictured the beefy juice permeating every crevice of the dark interior for, as every connoisseur knows, a meat-pie that isn‘t hot and moist inside is worse than a chilled claret.
As one of the youngest candidates, Moss was well down the queue, and he was in agony of mind lest all the pies should be sold before his turn came. By the time he held the small square of greaseproof paper with its burden of pie his mouth was watering copiously.
‘Is that everyone ?‘ cried Mester Shepherd. ‘Come along then, boys, we can eat them on the way to the tram !‘
Moss set off in high glee, determined to make his pie last as long as possible, by nibbling all round the decorated edge of the lid, then the lid, and at last the succulent heart.
So he was all unprepared for what happened next. It was so skilfully done that he would never be sure whether that act had been deliberate or not. At his side, Arnold Sutcliffe tripped, seemed to recover himself, and tripped again. And this time he barged full into Moss.
The next moment all that remained in Moss‘s hand was the square of greaseproof paper. And, before he could debate with himself whether to salvage what he could of the fallen pie, a studded boot came down and pressed it into the flagstones.
His loss was harder to bear for the shout of laughter which greeted it.
‘Eigh up !‘ cried a voice. ‘Look what‘s ‘appened to t‘teacher‘s pet ! ‘E‘s dropped ‘is pie !’
The chorus was taken up at once.
‘‘E‘s dropped ‘is pie ! ‘E‘s dropped ‘is pie !‘
There was nothing to be done but to put the best face possible upon it, and Moss fought mightily to hold back his tears of anger and chagrin. But his performance did not wholly convince his tormentors.
Albert Shepherd was quite at a loss to understand the absence from Sunday School on the three Sundays following of his favourite pupil – an occurrence quite without precedent.
He felt it his duty to draw Jim‘s attention to his son‘s omission, and Jim dealt with the matter without lengthy enquiry, putting the offence down to a boy‘s natural tendency to sin.
For his part, Moss was well pleased to be out of Mester Shepherd‘s good books, even at the cost of his father‘s displeasure. Like Selina, drowned in a tub of goldfish, he had learned that a favourite has no friends, and he much preferred to have friends at whatever cost.
Besides, he reasoned, A‘ll mek sure as A ‘owd on to mi meat-pie next year, choose what.