MOSS

CHAPTER 19

Quick i‘ the Earth
The Merry Wives of Windsor III, iv

When, in later years, Moss came to look back on the days of his childhood, he could not understand why he could recall so little of the nine days‘ wonder of the General Strike. He remembered even less of the miners‘ strike which preceded the other by some three days, and outlived it by twice as many months. The books all told him later that he had lived through momentous times, and he could only conclude that he must have been an insensitive child to have taken so little note of the misery and near-revolution that their pages described.

His own recollections, indeed, amounted to only two things, neither of which found their way into any book that he ever read. It was as if, in contemplating two sparrows on a pavement, he had missed a flight of eagles overhead.

The first memory was trivial enough, being merely that of pushing his face, along with those of his school-fellows, against the sooty iron bars of the school gates as the first ‘bus to appear at the end of the strike rattled and ground its way on solid rubber tyres up Grimesmoor Hill.

The second memory was of ‘Jubilee‘.

How the strange material, from a source which until then was unknown, ever acquired a yet more obscure name he never learned. True, Queen Victoria had died almost a quarter of a century earlier, but there seemed to be no obvious connection between that event and the news which ran through Grimesmoor like a spark through stubble. ‘Somedy‘s found summat in Vickers‘s Tip as‘ll burn‘. The news travelled fast, promising as it did hot dinners in a Grimesmoor which would otherwise have been on short commons and cold comfort until the miners‘ strike ended, and providing some insurance against the rigours of a Winter without fuel as that strike dragged on into the Autumn.

In those days, it might have seemed that there was an unspoken conspiracy between the industries of mining and steelmaking to change the face of England‘s green and pleasant land. For, as the mine-owners raised their mountainous spoil-heaps ever higher, the steelmakers were busily filling in whole valleys with the spoil of their furnaces. Every working day in Grimesmoor saw a procession of two-wheeled, high-bodied carts, each swaying like a camel, each pulled by a shire horse as sturdy and as solid as the wagon he pulled, and each either carrying a load of furnace spoil to Vickers‘s Tip or returning empty for another load.

By some process but dimly understood, the tarry constituent of this hot waste had filtered down through the layers of spoil until it settled into a seam. How the fact came to be discovered is not recorded, but there must have been something in the appearance of the strange material which suggested that it would burn – which was surprising, for it bore little resemblance to coal. What also went unrecorded is the identity of whoever baptized it with the name of ‘Jubilee‘. But the first reports proving true, in no time at all the procession of contractors‘ carts moving towards Vickers‘s Tip was joined by a motley assembly of wheelbarrows and ancient perambulators, coming to take the ‘Jubilee‘ away.

As with other human discoveries, its advantages in no long time were marred by disadvantages. The housewives of Grimesmoor soon learned that the bituminous muck which its burning produced ran down the bars of their fire-grates, spluttering flame and smoke as it did so, and bringing many a mother almost to tears as she saw her beautiful black-leading ruined. For, when the burning was done, a rock-hard deposit was left on the bars.

‘Jubilee‘ had other qualities which added to the uncertainties of life. Formed as it was, it could not hope to be free of adulteration, and it was soon found to contain stones of unpredictable size and even less predictable behaviour. Meal-times in Grimesmoor were now not infrequently punctuated by loud reports and the hazard of flying stone-shrapnel.

To miners bored with inactivity and savage from lack of the wherewithal to buy cigarettes or pipe-tobacco the news of the discovery was, understandably, manna from heaven. They descended on Vickers‘s Tip in hordes, and began to dig. In no time at all, the level wastes of the tip resembled the moon-landscape of Ballarat.

The board-rooms of the steel companies were thrown into disarray. The directors, uncharacteristically mindful of the safety of the folk of Grimesmoor, and aghast at the sight of so many gaping holes in the surface of the tip, determined to put an end to this exploitation of a man-made resource. But determination was one thing and feasible action quite another. No one could be found who was brave enough to bell the cat by being foolhardy enough to take steps in the direction of the tip with a view to making their determination known to the sweating miners. Their loud protests dwindled to an inaudible mumble.

The question of payment for the fuel was a delicate one, for there was never much money to spare in Grimesmoor, and even less during the strike. Nor were most miners altogether happy about taking money from those who were in like case to themselves. So those who could afford the ‘Jubilee‘ gave a few coppers or a packet of ‘fags‘, and the rest became freelance miners and began to add to the chaos of the tip with their amateurish efforts.

Moss, in common with his friends, was pressed into service. He and Alec Willett joined forces, and at once came up against a major obstacle. The obvious vehicle for the purpose was the Willett wheelbarrow, built as Albert always built, to withstand a long siege under heavy bombardment. But it was at once plain that it was not ideally suited to the task of carrying the ‘Jubilee‘. It was undeniable that on level ground it ran as sweetly as a curling-stone on ice, having ball-races that would have served for a power-station dynamo. But on an upward slope it resembled the labour of Sisyphus, and going downhill it was menacingly self-willed. In the end, the pair abandoned it in favour of Moss‘s old pram, which wobbled disconcertingly on wheels which had seen better days, and squealed like a cat with its tail trapped.

Half a dozen trips failed to quench their enthusiasm for the task, but by now Lizzie and Maggie could find no more storage space for the fuel. Left with idle hands, Satan found mischief for them to do, fully justifying Albert Kirk‘s Sunday homilies.

Moss and Alec turned capitalist . . .

They had discovered that there were housewives in Grimesmoor who, for want of a husband or children, had no one to fetch the ‘Jubilee‘ for them. Having stumbled on this state of affairs, Moss and Alec made up their minds to satisfy such an obvious need – for a modest charge, needless to say. It was a charge, even in such straitened times, which certain desperate housewives were ready enough to pay.

It was as they were returning from one of these profitable errands that they ran across Moss‘s eldest brother. Jack was at once suspicious of such obvious and inexplicable enthusiasm for a job of work in such an unlikely pair.

‘Na then, our Moss,‘ he said. ‘What‘s t‘game, like|?‘

Moss explained, a little too readily and too plausibly for belief, that they were doing a good turn. He hinted at a praiseworthy desire to succour the widowed and the childless. But Jack was not for a moment deceived, and got at the truth without difficulty.

‘Yer‘d better not let mi Dad catch yer at it, that‘s all !‘ he said.

Moss was at a loss, and vaguely uneasy. He‘d run errands for neighbours before today for the odd ha‘penny, he reasoned. What was different about fetching ‘Jubilee‘ for money ? Jack, impatient to be about his own business, was not at all disposed to stop and debate such a nice point of ethics with his younger brother.

‘Neer mind,‘ he said, over his shoulder, ‘just tek a tip, will yer ?‘

This brought the work to a halt for a while as they considered the problem. Moss was conscious that Jack was probably right, and that his father would look unkindly on their activity, though for reasons only a grown-up could follow. Alec‘s opinion was that Jack had not properly grasped what they were about, and was all for carrying on.

But Moss was still uneasy. Something told him that it would be wise to seek advice – but guardedly, so as not to invite awkward questions. On the way home, he weighed the possibility of asking his mother in a suitably roundabout way, and decided against it at once. To speak truth, he had never yet found a way that was sufficiently tortuous to deceive her. Besides, as he pointed out to Alec, it‘s time fer us dinners, any rooad.

He entered the back door at almost the same moment as Elsie, and decided on impulse to put the problem to her.

‘Eigh up, our Elsie,‘ he began, in what he fancied were tones of bland innocence, ‘if A was to tek t‘pram ter t‘tip, an‘ fetch some Jubilee -– ‘

He stopped, trying to gauge Elsie‘s immediate response.

‘Well ?‘ she said, with some impatience.

‘Well, would there be owt wrong i‘ that ?‘

‘For your mother ?‘ Elsie asked, now nearing twenty, rising in the social scale, and doing her best to ‘talk posh‘.

‘Well, anybody !‘ Moss replied.

His sister had no hesitation in saying that such an act would be meritorious. Moss gave the answer a few moments‘ thought. Then,

‘An‘ suppose yer was to charge fer fetchin‘ it ?‘

Elsie was her mother‘s daughter, and caught Moss‘s drift at once. She took off her coat and hung it at the foot of the stairs before she said, with studied carelessness,

‘Why, how much did you charge ?‘

Moss walked head-first into the trap.

‘On‘y a penny !‘ he said.

Elsie proceeded to show her brother that he had badly miscalculated in supposing that she would be an easier proposition than their mother, her righteous indignation causing her for a moment to forget the need for careful diction.

‘Yer‘ve been chargin‘ folk fer fetchin‘ Jubilee, ‘ave yer ?‘

Moss grunted assent.

‘What soort o‘ folk ?‘ she asked, lapsing further into the vernacular. ‘Folk as couldn‘t fetch their own, eh ?‘

Again Moss was forced to agree.

‘An‘ what‘s mi Dad gunna say when ‘e ‘ears, eh ? What d‘yer suppose folk at t‘chapil‘ll think when they ‘ear as Moss Garrett‘s been tekkin‘ money from folk as can‘t affoard it ? At a time like this an‘ all, when folks‘s scrattin‘ fer every penny. Yer should be downright ashamed o‘ yerself, our Moss, that yer should !‘

To Moss, who, to do him justice, had noticed no great change in the times, this was a consideration which had never entered his head. He had the feeling that he had stepped out of doors in expectation of a light breeze and been hit by a tornado.

But Elsie had by no means done.

‘‘Ow much did yer make then ?‘ she asked.

‘Twopence !‘ said Moss. ‘Twopence fer me, an‘ twopence fer Alec !‘

‘Then yer can jus‘ goo and give it back again !‘ Elsie exclaimed, lapsing still further into her native tongue. ‘This minute, mind !‘

‘A can‘t !‘ he said, almost in tears. ‘We‘ve spent it on spice !‘

‘Oh, y‘ave, ‘ave yer ?‘ She began to look about her for her purse. ‘Right ! Then yer can goo an‘ put things right again ! Now ! Befoor yer dinner !‘

Despair made Moss defiant.

‘A shan‘t ! Besides, what about Alec ? ‘E‘s spent ‘is, an‘ all !‘

Elsie took him by the shoulders, and shook him.

‘Yer not responsible fer Alec Willett ! Yer responsible for Moss Garrett ! Now,‘ and she took two coppers from her purse, ‘yer‘ll tek this money back ! Now ! All of it, mind ! An‘ yer can get Alec‘s, an‘ all ! An‘ if A find as y‘aven‘t done it, A s‘ll tell mi Dad ! So think on !‘

Moss began to blubber in earnest.

‘A ‘aven‘t gorrit, A tell yer ! A‘ve spent it !‘

‘So yer said ! Well, yer can tek this twopence -– no, yer won‘t -– ‘ and she reached inside her purse again. ‘Yer can tek this fourpence an‘ give it straight back, d‘y‘ear ? An‘ then yer‘ll owe it to me, won‘t yer ?‘

‘But A on‘y ‘ad twopence !‘

Elsie held out the coins without reply, and Moss knew that further debate was vain. But he was livid with the injustice of it all.

‘A shan‘t ‘ave any spice fer four Sat‘days !‘ he cried, indignation stemming the flow of his tears. But Elsie was unmoved.

‘Then yer‘ll just ‘ave to lick yer lips an‘ remember all t‘spice yer‘ve ‘ad terday, won‘t yer ?‘

She silenced any further objections with a raised hand.

‘Of coorse,‘ she said, sweetly, ‘if yer can get Alec‘s twopence out of ‘im, yer can bring me my twopence back, an‘ then it‘ll be on‘y two Sat‘days, won‘t it ?‘

She pressed the four pennies into his hands, closed his fingers over them, spun him around, and sent him on his way with a gentle smack on his behind.

He found returning the money no less embarrassing than the scene with Elsie, the more so as two of his clients said that they were well satisfied, and declined to accept it. Moss knew full well what the consequences would be if he returned other than empty-handed, and became quite desperate in his insistence that they must take the money. He had a shrewd suspicion that murder would out rather more quickly in the close community of Grimesmoor than elsewhere, and that people were more likely to remark on the return of the money than on the giving.

Alec Willett was quite another matter. As Moss had feared he saw no good reason to mortgage his Saturday money for two weeks, and said so. And without parental pressure, which in this instance was out of the question, there was nothing to be done. Moss raged inwardly at such an unjust world, and the prospect of four spiceless Saturdays added yet more gall to his bitter cup.

As he had foreseen, Elsie cross-examined hin closely on his return, and demanded details which could later be tested for truth. Moss, knowing that she could read him like a book, told all, not forgetting Alec Willett‘s perfidy. But this elicited no sympathy from Elsie, and Moss, having expected none, was not altogether disappointed.

However, he was to learn that expectations, like fears, are sometimes liars, and not always in human despite. Before he had felt the pain of his first spiceless Saturday, the tables were turned in a manner quite astonishing.

His father came home from choir practice on the Thursday evening rather earlier than usual, and asked for Moss. But his son was already in bed, and it was to Lizzie, sewing by the light of a borrowed oil-lamp since the supply of gas had ceased because of the Strike, that the question was put.

‘Did yer know as our Moss ‘as been fetchin‘ Jubilee fer folk at t‘chapil, an‘ gerrin‘ paid fer it ?‘

‘Aye, A did,‘ said Lizzie. ‘What about it ?‘

‘Well, yer might ‘ave towd me !‘ said Jim.

‘Why should A ? ‘E gev it all back, didn‘t ‘e ?‘

‘Aye, so A ‘ear ! Why ?‘

‘Why did ‘e give it back ?‘

‘Aye !‘

‘‘Cos our Elsie telled him to !‘

‘Oh ? An‘ what the hangment did she want to do a thing like that for ?‘

Lizzie looked up, astonished.

‘What for ? Do yer want ‘im mekkin‘ money out o‘ folks as can‘t affoard it, then ?‘

‘An‘ what meks our Elsie think as they can‘t affoard it ?‘

‘Na, look ‘ere !‘ Lizzie said with some heat. ‘You‘d ‘ave been t‘first to tell ‘im to tek it back !‘

‘Nowt o‘ t‘sooart ! Does anybody tell you what you can affooard ?‘

She smiled grimly.

‘A should like to see ‘em try !‘

‘Theer y‘are then,‘ he said. ‘Why should our Elsie tek it on ‘erself to decide what other folk can affooard|?‘

This was a novel idea to Lizzie, and threw a whole new light on the matter. Jim went on, still sweetly reasonable,

‘A don‘t suppose fer a minute as folk ‘oo asked our Moss ter fetch ‘em some Jubilee expected ‘im to do it fer nowt. An‘ if they did, they‘d no right to ! Just because ‘e‘s a kid !‘

He pondered the matter a little longer, and then added,

‘An‘ she made ‘im give it all back, did she ?‘

‘Aye, she did,‘ said Lizzie, ‘an‘ yer not gooin‘ back on ‘er, A ‘ope ?‘

This posed a subtle problem in ethics. It was plain that Elsie had acted from the highest motives, and for that reason must have their support. But in Jim‘s view, his son had been unfairly treated. In his working life Jim was all too familiar with injustice, and it was a thing he loathed, whether from man or master.

‘A s‘ll ‘ave ter think about it !‘ he said.

The result of this thinking was revealed on the morrow, the first of the four barren Saturdays. He spoke to Moss before going off to his work at seven o‘clock that morning.

‘Mrs Arkwright was tellin‘ me as yer‘d been fetchin‘ ‘er some Jubilee, son !‘

Moss‘s heart seemed to stop beating. He looked up guardedly, wondering what further punishment was to be visited upon him. But somehow he could not reconcile the idea of further chastisement with the tone of his father‘s voice. Before he could answer, his father went on,

‘Did she give yer owt for gooin‘, then ?‘

Moss still suspected that the almost jocular tone was a snare to entrap him, but still his father‘s face betrayed no sign of duplicity.

‘A gev it back !‘ said Moss, cautiously.

‘Oh !‘ said his father. ‘An‘ why was that ?‘

‘‘Cos our Elsie said A shouldn‘t tek money from folk as can‘t affooard it !‘

‘Quite right !‘ said his father. ‘But Mrs Arkwright towd me as she wouldn‘t ‘ave minded if it‘d been -– well, ‘afe that price. A ha‘penny instead of a penny, yer see.‘

Moss looked even harder at his father, but still could not read his motive in his face.

‘So,‘ his father went on, ‘A expect if yer was to tek ‘er another load, she‘d be glad to give yer a penny. For two loads, like.‘

Moss was just turning on his heels to go in search of Alec and recruit him for another mission, when he was called back.

‘Eigh up, just a minute !‘ his father said, and this time with a smile which reconciled Moss to his world again, ‘yer fergettin‘ summat, aren‘t yer ? Yer‘ve got t‘chapil jobs to do befoor ye goo off fetchin‘ Jubilee. An‘ another thing ! Next time, befoor yer mek yer mind up ter do any jobs fer money, there‘s two things yer‘ve got to bear in mind – !‘

‘Yes, dad ?‘

‘First, allus settle t‘terms befoor yer do t‘job, see ? Then neether side can complain.‘

‘Yes, Dad !‘

‘An‘ t‘other thing is this – don‘t you ever expect to get paid fer jobs that you do fer yer Mam. Yer do them jobs fer love, see ?‘

‘Yes, Dad !‘ Moss replied again, though he wondered why his father should take the trouble to state such an obvious fact of life.

‘An‘ A shouldn‘t wonder,‘ his father added, ‘– if yer were to ask, like – as Mrs Wainwright might not be t‘on‘y one as could do wi‘ some moor Jubilee ! Then yer can give our Elsie ‘er money back, yer see ?‘

Rarely had Moss expended so much effort and elbow-grease on his Chapel jobs as he did that day, in his haste to break the news to Alec.

But the day‘s surprises were by no means over. The news of the enterprise and the injustice had by now reached the ears of Albert and Maggie Willett. So, when Moss at last ran his friend to earth, Alec astonished him by handing over the twopence he had earlier withheld.

By the end of that day they had all but exhausted themselves and the neighbourhood‘s demands. They put away Moss‘s pram with great relief, and the next time Lizzie found herself in need of ‘Jubilee‘ she found that her son‘s attitude to the chore was manifest in his well-worn cry, ‘Aw, Mam ! ‘Ave A got to ?‘

Jim and Albert had a quiet chuckle over the incident of the ‘Jubilee‘, and agreed that after all a sort of rough justice seemed to have triumphed. As Jim said, there‘s no sense in preachin‘ as t‘labourer‘s worthy of ‘is ‘ire if yer don‘t put it inter practice. T‘Good Lord didn‘t expect Jim Garrett to work fer nowt, choose what Albert Kirk an‘ t‘other stewards might expect.

And what was good enough for him was, of course, good enough for his son.

 

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