Moss‘s first years in school had seen Alec Willett undeservedly neglected. A difference in age, which had gone unnoticed when Moss needed Alec‘s companionship for lack of any other, loomed larger now that he had friends in plenty.
And even when, in the fulness of time, Alec himself began his education at Grimesmoor Council School, they were still separated, for then Moss had already moved into the Junior School. Though they could not meet in class or playground, for the staff wisely maintained a separate play-time for juniors and infants, they were inevitably thrown together outside school, despite Moss‘s new-found preference for older company.
And now, to make matters worse, Moss learned that his mother had a new job for him, the one which had earlier chafed his brother Joe.
‘Na, look ‘ere, our Moss ! Just you tek care of Alec, d‘y‘ear ? Just you see as none o‘ them big lads knock him about, will yer ?‘
Moss, counting himself now among these same big lads, was moved to protest.
‘Aw, Mam ! ‘‘Ave A got to ? ‘E‘s got plenty o‘ kids to play wi‘ !‘
His mother was adamant, however, and Moss took up his cross, muttering curses not loud but deep.
He soon discovered, as his mother had suspected, that the chore was less onerous than he had feared. Alec was a sturdy child, tall for his years, and more solidly built than Moss himself. Moreover, there was a large helping of the dare-devil in Alec, so that times without number he needed protection against himself rather than the big lads. Indeed, having shown himself top-dog among his peers, he was now looked upon with some respect by boys who were older. Moss, who had steeled himself to some wet-nursing, was all unprepared for something quite different. He found himself constantly called upon to restrain his young charge when Alec expressed a desire to emulate the older boys, and without paying enough heed to the fact that, in Moss‘s eyes at least, he was ‘still a kid‘.
To make matters infinitely worse, Maggie Willett had a childlike and totally unjustified faith in Moss‘s ability to care for her son that would have alarmed Moss had he been aware of its extent.
In this overweening and altogether uncritical care for her son, Maggie Willett was quite unlike the average Grimesmoor mother. Where they went about their daily tasks in total ignorance of their children‘s whereabouts, not to mention what they were up to, Maggie lived in constant dread, whenever her ewe lamb was out of sight, of something untoward happening to him. She could only find some easement of that dread if she knew he was with Moss – which, in the light of some of the devilment that he and his cronies got up to, is a striking proof of the truth of the aphorism about ignorance and bliss.
Summer had come to Grimesmoor, and with it came school holidays, pitch bubbling up from between the setts of the cobbled street, and adventure bubbling in the breasts of the young. The boys, casting about for suitable holiday occupation, made up their minds to go to Lynbeck, where there was paddling, fishing for minnows and sticklebacks, and, for the hardier sort, swimming.
There were those who, unwisely, let the word ‘Lynbeck‘ escape from their lips in the hearing of their mothers and who were at once forbidden to go. Others, more discreet, merely let it be known that they were ‘off on a ramble‘ while hinting at the tamer delights of Frith Park. So, in a world where the unwise seem always to be in the majority, it was not surprising that the party was eventually much reduced in number. By the time the day of the ramble dawned Moss‘s party was down to three, Alec Willett, Arnold Sutcliffe, and himself.
Moss was not at all displeased at this turn of events, for Arnold was a big lad, handy with his fists, and fearless to boot. And, anyway, three is the magic number for a company of boys.
It was not often that the boys of Grimesmoor visited Lynbeck, and then only on summer days, since it lay some five miles from home, and the journey necessarily all on foot by reason of a chronic lack of funds. Even if they left, as they aimed to do, after an early breakfast, the sun would be high in the sky by the time they reached the cool shade of Lynbeck‘s trees.
Lizzie welcomed Moss‘s suggestion that they might ‘goo on a ramble‘, but insisted that he could only do so if he took Alec along. Since Moss had foreseen this stipulation and included Alec in his plans from the first, his scowl of protest was purely for form‘s sake, a sort of banking of his resources in the hope that they might gain a little interest should the occasion arise when he might want to raise a stronger objection.
Maggie raised no obstacle, secure in her unshakable confidence in Moss‘s ability to guard her precious offspring, and the preparations were put in train.
Alec, always more luxuriously equipped than other boys in the yard, was equipped with a large khaki haversack which had seen Army service in France, and better days, too. But at least it was a professional piece of kit compared with Moss‘s brown-paper carrier, and he was glad of Maggie Willett‘s suggestion that he should put his sandwiches in Alec‘s haversack. Lizzie thanked her neighbour for the kindly suggestion, merely adding shrewdly that ‘our Moss‘ll carry it.‘
Then, just as they were on the point of setting off with high hopes, his mother‘s parting words cast a blight upon Moss‘s day.
‘An‘ look ‘ere, our Moss, don‘t you dare tek Alec near any water, d‘y‘understand ?‘
Since water was the main attraction of Lynbeck, this was a blow, the more so as one of his mother‘s towels was already lining the bottom of Alec‘s haversack, where Moss had secreted it. He had a convenient philosophy, which ruled that what was not expressly forbidden was by implication allowed. Now he would be called upon to disobey, which would not have been necessary if his mother had omitted to mention the matter. He nodded and kept his counsel, deciding to deal with that issue if it arose, and not before. P‘raps A can tell Alec to stop on t‘grass, he told himself, though not with any real confidence.
When they met Arnold by the paper shop he, too, had arrived complete with paper carrier. The obvious solution was to empty it and stuff the contents into Alec‘s haversack. Then all three could take turns to carry it, Moss and Arnold on the way out and Alec on the homeward journey – an arrangement which Alec at once vetoed, on the grounds that he had provided the ends and the others should provide the means. It was a solution which their parents might have thought unfair, but with a boy‘s infallible sense of justice, Moss and Arnold agreed.
First it was necessary to settle on the one who was to take the first stint. Moss claimed it by right of seniority, since he was all of three days older than Arnold. Arnold objected, and appealed to Alec, as the owner of the haversack, to decide. Then Moss had a brainwave which met with instant agreement.
‘Tell thi what ! We‘ll do ‘One Pertater Two Pertater‘ ! Put thi fists up, Arnold !‘
Arnold at once obliged, and Moss congratulated himself on his sagacity. He had long ago worked out this routine for any given number of participants. Given the right to start, which was never a matter for dispute anyway, he knew exactly which of the several fists to begin with, depending upon whether it was in his interests to win or lose. Considering how universal was this method of drawing lots, it never failed to astonish Moss that no one had ever sat down with a sheet of paper and a stub of pencil and worked out where to start counting for any given number of fists.
It had already occurred to him that at this stage of the journey the haversack was at its heaviest, and that he would have been wiser to concede Arnold‘s right to first turn. But at once he felt that some stratagem was necessary, in case Arnold should also decide that it was better to lose than to win. And, with only four fists to consider, it was ridiculously easy to engineer whatever result he chose.
He began by tapping Arnold‘s right fist on the first number, then his left fist, then changing hands to tap his own right fist, than tapping his left fist with his right hand again, and so beginning another round. And each round was enlivened by the refrain:
Moss started the count with Arnold‘s right fist, noticing as he did so Arnold‘s smile of satisfaction as he realized that the end of the round would see one of Moss‘s fists removed.
His glee was short-lived, for at the end of the next round which now required only three fists, his own right fist must go behind his back.
The last round, and the moment of truth. And, as Moss had calculated, the blow fell on Alec‘s remaining fist and Moss had won.
‘Tha cheated !‘ cried Alec, more from habit than conviction.
‘Awreight !‘ said Moss. ‘We‘ll do it ageean, then !‘
But, of course, the result was no different.
And now Moss played his trump card. With an altogether assumed air of reluctance, he gave in.
‘Awreight,‘ he said, ‘A were just kiddin‘ ! Tha can ‘ave fust turn !‘
Arnold‘s look of glee as he donned the haversack in triumph brought an equal satisfaction to Moss‘s breast as he congratulated himself on a clever piece of diplomacy. At once, and as if on an afterthought, he suggested that it was only fair that he should take over the haversack at the Five Arches and Arnold, whose face was eloquent testimony to his realization that the Five Arches was beyond the halfway point, readily agreed.
The first couple of miles saw them well past the sooty stone walls of the school, which was now as securely bolted and barred to keep a child out as it would soon be to keep him in. Soon they left Field Marshal Road behind them, and then came the brick-field, scene of many a day-long football or cricket match, and then the long climb up Walpole Road. When the crest of the hill was at last reached, they saw for the first time, beyond the distant Five Arches the even more remote prospect of football ground and factories behind which lay Lynbeck.
With one accord, they sat down to rest.
‘Tell thi what !‘ cried Alec. ‘Let‘s ‘ave us dinners|!‘
Arnold, who was by now beginning to regret his own eagerness in taking over the haversack, was only too ready to fall in. Moss, who was eager to get to Lynbeck, was about to challenge the suggestion, when the thought struck him that the food which the haversack contained would thus be shared between three stomachs, and that the haversack would be all the lighter for it.
But he was too much of an old hand to agree at once, and made a show of reluctance, which, predictably, made the others the more determined, and in no long time the haversack was lighter for the loss of three bundles of sandwiches.
However, it was now no easy task to separate Moss‘s dripping sandwiches, Arnold‘s jam sandwiches, and Alec‘s more sophisticated sandwiches of sliced tomatoes, all of which had become somewhat conjoined on the journey. The decision was taken, and agreed, to have only one sandwich at this stage and save the rest for the afternoon, but, long before they had finished the first sandwich, they were tempted to take the other – and, being three normal healthy boys, they fell.
Arnold abandoned the haversack readily enough at the Five Arches, and three tired boys at last crossed Maleham Bridge and climbed over the low stone wall that bordered the Lyn Beck. Their spirits revived at once at the sight of the stream.
By now the sun was high in the heavens, and blazed down upon a motley collection of children of all ages in various stages of undress. The water, shaded by alder trees except where it winked and sparkled in full sunlight, looked wonderfully inviting.
Come on !‘ cried Arnold. ‘Let‘s goo in swimmin‘ !‘
Moss was thoroughly alarmed at this, especially as Alec was clearly losing no time in shedding his clothes. His intention had been to stop short at paddling, and knew that even this was forbidden in the absence of any grown-up. He also knew that Arnold was no swimmer, and that he himself was little better. And Alec, he knew, could not swim a stroke, nor was he ever likely to learn, since his mother would trust no one with her precious son in the swimming baths at Sutherland Road, let alone a river.
He himself had learned to swim after a fashion, as he learned to do most things, by reading a book. He had an abiding faith in the power of the printed word to teach him anything, a faith which he often put to the test and which let him down as often as not.
He had nearly come to grief the first time he entered the water at the shallow end of the swimming bath, secure in the knowledge that he had a great aptitude for swimming, born of all the reading he had done. He had changed hurriedly, conscious of an inward trembling, half of fear, half excited anticipation, put on the scratchy drawers provided by a benevolent Corporation, and ventured hesitantly down the steps into the water.
The book had not warned him of the gasping chill when his body entered the water. Nor did the water support him as the book had promised it would. So, after several visits to the baths, he had progressed no further than an ability to jump into the water and swim half the width of the bath, all under water. Despite his utmost efforts, he made little further progress, swimming easily and with great style as long as his lungs would hold out under water, but puffing and panting like a grampus as soon as he ventured to swim on the surface.
So he was less than receptive to Arnold‘s suggestion, though unwilling to advance his real objection to it, which was his mother‘s parting command. He cast about for a more acceptable argument.
‘We ‘aven‘t got no cozzies !‘ he exclaimed.
‘We don‘t need no cozzies !‘ Arnold replied. ‘We can swim in us singlets an‘ pants !‘
It would have been a possible solution for Moss but for one inescapable fact. It was summer time, and underwear was winter wear only in the Garrett household. Swimming without some form of covering was out of the question, for Moss had all the delicacy about personal nakedness which was common at the time.
By this time Arnold was down to his underwear and Alec not far behind. Moss was in a panic.
‘Tha can‘t goo in, Alec Willett ! Tha knows what thi mother said !‘
But Arnold was already standing on the broad top of the weir over which the water, no more than an inch in depth, slid glassily before cascading down the steps of the downstream side in a flurry of bouncing white foam. And, before Moss could stop him, Alec had followed suit.
But he was inexperienced in such matters, and was all unprepared for the slimy surface of the rock. The next moment he had slid from the top of the weir and was into deep water.
Moss had a sudden, appalling vision of his mother‘s anger if Alec arrived home soaking wet. There was only one thing to do. Before Alec‘s body could vanish from sight, he jumped in, fully clothed as he was, and dived down.
He caught a glimpse of a dark green object, and grabbed for it. The next moment he had hauled Alec up to the surface, and guided his hand to the flat top of the weir.
Gasping for breath, he called,
‘Arnold ! Grab owd of ‘im ! Gerrim out !‘
White-faced, Arnold hauled Alec, and then Moss on to the flat top of the weir, where they lay for a few moments, gasping for breath. And soon they were all three standing, silent except for the uncontrollable chattering of their teeth, on the grassy sward by the stream.
The incident had not gone unnoticed.
Agnes Mitchell, schoolmistress in retirement and with a house overlooking the Lyn Beck, had seen all. The sight of a small boy tumbling into deep water had all but stopped her heart but, even before she could move from her window, the danger was past.
She hurried out to take command.
‘Come with me, you boys !‘ she cried, in a schoolmistressy voice which brooked no refusal. ‘Come along now !‘
They recognized the tone of authority, and sheepishly trailed after her, wondering what fate awaited them. At the last moment Moss remembered the haversack containing his mother‘s precious towel, ran back to fetch it and back again to join the others.
‘Miss !‘ he called after the strange lady. !It‘s awright ! We‘ve got a towel !‘
‘Never mind that now !‘ said Agnes Mitchell, who was beginning to enjoy once more the experience of handling children. ‘Come with me, or you‘ll all get your death of cold !‘
In the blazing heat of noonday it seemed an unlikely prospect to Moss, but he acknowledged the traditional fear of wet clothing and the ills that were thought to be attendant on it, and followed without further question.
As was customary in those parts, Miss Mitchell had a coal fire burning in the hearth even at summer‘s height. Quickly she ranged them round it, and went to get towels. Then with understanding delicacy, she said,
‘Now I‘m going to make a hot drink. So, while I‘m gone, get your clothes off and dry yourself. You can wrap yourselves in the towels until your clothes are dry.‘
When she had gone, they held a whispered consultation. Moss had already made up his mind that this unknown lady was ‘awright‘, and the other two agreed.
Soon afterwards, they heard the sound of returning feet, and quickly adjusted their towels for maximum coverage as she entered, bearing a tray. She looked at the trio with practised eyes as they averted theirs.
‘There !‘ she said. ‘No great harm done, I think ! Now I expect you‘d all like a piece of cake !‘
Cake ! They looked at her wide-eyed, and without response, and she took their silence for consent.
‘Here you are, then ! Eat up, and drink this hot cocoa, and I‘ll get those clothes dried !‘
Then she went off again. Gingerly at first, and then with growing confidence, they began to tuck into the plate of Sally Lunns and fruit cake and soon polished them off, washing them down with steaming cocoa the while.
When their clothes were dry again, she brought them in, and again tactfully retired while they dressed. But this time when she returned she looked directly at Moss. Then, to his astonishment, she crooked a finger at him and signified by a movement of her head that he was to accompany her from the room. Puzzled, he followed her into the small back-kitchen.
‘Where do you boys live ?‘ she asked.
‘Grimesmoor, Miss !‘ said Moss, without hesitation.
‘So far ? Well now, I think it‘s time you all went home. And I don‘t think any of you should play so near to water again. Not until you can swim much better. This stream is very deep in places, you know !‘
‘Yes, Miss !‘ said Moss, in his best meek tone.
‘Now I think you should all collect your things and be off. Here‘s a shilling for your tram fares, and perhaps you could get some sweets on the way home.‘
A shilling ? It was riches untold. Twelve weeks‘ spending money ! He had never known such wealth, and his eyes shone with gratitude. Then he seemed to hear his mother‘s voice, and at once remembered his manners.
‘Thank you, Miss,‘ he said.
Her eyes softened.
‘What is your name ?‘
‘Maurice, Miss ! Maurice Garrett !‘
‘Maurice ? That‘s a nice name !‘ Then she added, ‘Maurice, that was a very brave thing you did. Things might have been much worse, you know, but for your quick thinking !‘
This threw a whole new light on the subject, and one which Moss had not even considered. For his part, the act of rescue had been prompted not at all by motives of nobility, but entirely for fear of the consequences if he should fail to deliver Alec Willett to his home clean, dry, and safe. He knew only too well the punishment for what his mother called ‘downright disobedience‘. But, he reasoned, if that were the case, if he really had performed a meritorious deed, then he was rightly entitled to the rewards.
He made up his mind on the instant to keep quiet about the shilling.
When they were safely away, Arnold asked the question which had clearly been occupying his mind for some time.
‘Eigh up ! What did she want thi for, Moss ?‘
Moss, startled by the suddenness of the question, was obliged to think quickly.
‘Oh, well, she – she said – A mean, she said as we ought to goo ‘ome, ‘cos it‘s dangerous ‘ere !‘
Earlier, the other two might have disputed such a suggestion, but they had been suitably chastened by the events of the day and, besides, they agreed, they couldn‘t stop theer without that lady knowin‘.
Moss handed the haversack to Arnold, and they set off to walk home. On the way, Arnold recalled that they hadn‘t quite finished the sandwiches. A search proved him wrong, and they had to satisfy their pangs of hunger with the memory of Sally Lunns, fruit cake and cocoa.
They were home suspiciously early for their parents‘ peace of mind, and there was inevitable speculation and questioning. Moss, aware of this, had been preparing the ground, and coaching his friends in the story. Some big lads ‘ad started chasin‘ ‘em, he said, so they‘d ‘ad to come ‘ome.
Lizzie was still not entirely convinced by her son‘s too ready and too ingenuous explanation, for such an early return from Lynbeck was quite without precedent. But in the end, she expressed herself satisfied, and it was only the lack of appetite in her son when faced with his tea which aroused her suspicions afresh.
At length, and for lack of any other evidence, she allowed the matter to drop, and the incident might have passed without further remark. But the next day, by chance, she missed one of her towels, and the most careful search failed to turn it up. Quite at a loss to explain this, she suddenly recalled the excursion of the day before, put two and two together, and arrived at the only possible explanation.
‘Look ‘ere, our Moss ! Did yer tek one o‘ my best towels to Lynbeck yesterday ?‘
His scarlet cheeks made answer superfluous. But she noticed at once that he was not so much defiant as alarmed, and suspected that there was more in this than met the eye. She decided to consult with Maggie Willett, in the hope that she could shed some light on the event.
There she learned all. Small boys are notoriously poor guardians of a secret, and this case was no exception. Maggie had easily wormed out of her son an account of the ordeal by water.
‘Na look, Lizzie,‘ she said. ‘Yer mustn‘t say owt to your Moss. If what our Alec says is owt to go by, your Moss saved ‘is life yesterday. But ‘e doesn‘t want owt said about it, an‘ A ‘ad to promise our Alec as A wouldn‘t tell anybody. So if yer say owt to your Moss, our Alec‘ll know as A‘ve telled yer. You won‘t say a word, will yer ?‘
Lizzie weighed the news for a few moments, uncertain as to what she ought to do in such a noteworthy case.
‘Aw well,‘ she said, at length, ‘it weren‘t really one o‘ mi best towels, any road !‘
Moss, who had expected a command to go the very next day to recover the towel, was more than a little astonished that no further mention of the missing article was made. But, over the next few days, he caught his mother regarding him from time to time with a look which he could not begin to understand.
It was as well he could not read her mind, or his vainglory would have been altogether insufferable.