MOSS

CHAPTER 21

Accounted a Good Actor
Hamlet III,ii

Moss was finding it hard to get to sleep.

Ever a single-minded child, he had heard Mester Caxton‘s words that day with a shock of delight that had driven every other thought clean out of his head.

He went over in his mind for the thousandth time the announcement which had begun it all – Mester Caxton lowering the lid of his desk, and scanning the rows of faces before him as he always did until the silence in the classroom could almost be felt. And then at last, in a tone so casual that it was quite unsuited to such momentous tidings,

‘Sit up straight, everybody ! Matthewman, sit up, or I‘ll give you something to help you, understand ? Now then, are you all paying attention ?‘

The question was altogether rhetorical. None knew better than the teacher himself that a baker‘s dozen or so of his charges needed no such reminder, and that the rest were merely going through the motions of attending for fear of reprisals.

Then he announced the news that had Moss‘s spine straining like a bowstring and his right hand reaching for the ceiling in his desire to be one of the chosen few.

‘Now you all remember what Miss Hardy said to you this morning ? About the School Inspector coming next month ? Right ! Well now, the boys of Standard Five are going to do a play, perhaps, for the Inspector to see when he comes – !‘

The interested few looked at each other in mingled astonishment, delight, and bewilderment. A play ! In school ! It was unheard of.

The curriculum at Grimesmoor had not been designed with such fripperies in mind as the drama. Its form was simplicity itself. Arithmetic every morning until play-time, English until lunch-time (or, rather, dinner-time in local parlance). The afternoon could then be devoted to less vital subjects such as History and Geography. Thus, when sickness or age had contrived to make these pupils forgetful of all else, they would still recall Swale, Ure, Nidd, Wharfe, Aire, Calder, Don as the rivers of Yorkshire – though few could have named the squalid little beck which burbled its way between houses and beneath old prams and cycle tyres not a hundred yards from the school gates.

Once a week there was Drawing – aptly named, for it required only octavo sheets of creamy cartridge paper with an HB pencil as the sole medium – except that on rare occasions, black paper would take the place of the white, and pastels would be given out, to be trodden underfoot by studded boots, causing a teacher to grind his teeth just as thoroughly and to swear never again. Such delights as Drawing provided were always under threat, for at the approach of examinations or a visit from an Inspector appointed by the local authority, Drawing, and even History and Geography, would be relegated to limbo until the crisis had passed and normality could be safely restored.

But a play ! And in school ! Moss, more than most, was in the seventh heaven of delight. He was no stranger to the boards, having taken part in Sunday School concerts almost since he could mouth his first syllables. But a play ! A play was different. He wondered whether the Inspector was aware of what momentous things were being planned in honour of his visit, and whether he would be properly impressed with the honour that Grimesmoor Council School was conferring upon him.

Mester Caxton was speaking again.

‘Miss Hardy and I thought it might be a good idea if you were to present a play about one of the stories in your history reader. So the play we‘re going to do is about the murder of Thomas à Becket !‘

It wasn‘t the subject his flock, or rather those of his flock who showed any interest, might have chosen. Not perhaps what Mester Caxton himself would have preferred to tackle, but it had possibilities, Moss decided. At least there was nothing sloppy about it. Plenty of action, sword-play, and shouting, and one or two parts to tear a cat in. Just what a play ought to have, thought Moss.

‘And now,‘ Mester Caxton concluded, ‘we‘re all going into the Hall to read a piece for Miss Hardy ! And then we will choose the parts.‘

They were completely deceived by Mester Caxton‘s deviousness, for not one of them suspected that his prime motive was to demonstrate the reading standard which the class had attained. The play came a very poor second. He had put up the idea of the play with some trepidation when Miss Hardy had said that she would like to ‘hear Standard Five‘s reading‘, and was neither astonished nor dismayed when she made it a condition of her agreement to the play that any failure on the part of Standard Five to attain the desired level of reading performance would assuredly jeopardize the prospect of consent.

Now she stood waiting for them to be chivvied into orderly ranks, with the smaller boys at the front. She was not at all certain in her mind that she had acted wisely in giving Mr Caxton his head. She was of the old school which held that the teacher‘s prime duty was to turn out pupils who could write neatly, read fluently, and figure accurately. The rest of education was, in her view, merely icing on the cake.

In the eyes of Miss Hardy, the idea that any child should leave her care without a sufficient facility in reading was not to be countenanced for an instant, especially as it called for nothing more than diligent teaching and repeated practice. She had heard all the talk about ‘the ineducable minority‘ and accorded it the same treatment as Nelson gave to his superior officer‘s order at Copenhagen. In her opinion, any boy not actually an imbecile could learn to read – and should, while she drew breath. Nor was she alone in this. There are those in every age who count this the whole of education.

For Moss, who was far from ineducable, the reading test tried his patience sorely. He knew that he could not only read well, but could read with understanding, which was by no means the same thing. He was therefore disappointed that Miss Hardy seemed not to give any sign that she agreed. But at least she made some mark in the exercise book on her desk before moving on to Arnold Sutcliffe. He must then try to compose his soul in patience until the other forty-odd had skipped or stumbled their way through their passages of prose, and the verdict could be announced.

But that, it seemed, was not yet.

The audition over, Standard Five was marched back into the classroom, where Mester Caxton announced that the Headmistress would decide on the parts for the play later, and would make her decision known at Assembly tomorrow. And not one member of the class knew, least of all the ingenuous Moss, that the reason for the delay was a mere pretence, that Mester Caxton had already cast his play, but that he himself did not know, until Miss Hardy had decided the matter, whether there would be a play at all.

He kept up the hollow pretence by having the books given out, so that the class could begin to read the play.

‘Now, boys,‘ he said, ‘we‘re going to read the play through. Sutcliffe, sit up straight, lad, or I‘ll give you something to help you ! Garrett, begin reading on Page One, and the rest of you follow in your books. And woe betide anybody who doesn‘t know the place !‘

This last remark caused Moss a twinge of alarm. He knew only too well that no one stood in more danger from this cause than he did. True, he ran no hazard while he was reading at Mester Caxton‘s behest, but he knew, too, that once his turn was over he would find it impossible to dawdle along at the speed of the others. He would read on, lost to the world, page after page, far ahead of the passage which was being haltingly and laboriously recited, often in tones which proclaimed that the reader had not the slightest idea what it all meant. He never knew that Mester Caxton, good man, was well aware of his bright pupil‘s failing and tended to overlook it whenever it was politic to do so.

On this occasion, however, Moss forced himself to stay with the rest, fearful that any peccadillo now might invite his complete exclusion from the ranks of the elect.

 

 

In his bed that night he emerged from his dream of the day‘s events to the realization that voices were being raised downstairs, not in the usual rowdy clamour of family debate, but in the heated overtones of real anger. Unable to sleep, and ever curious, Moss decided that he must know the cause.

He slipped out of bed and made his way to the head of the stairs, where he sat on the topmost step, torn between the desire to know more and his morbid fear of the dark which plagued him still, despite his father‘s assurances and his greater sum of years.

Jimmy, it seemed, was getting a ‘telling off‘.

This was not altogether unusual, for he was of an age to challenge parental authority, and Moss dimly understood this. What was unusual in this instance, though, was that Jimmy was getting his ‘telling off‘ jointly from his father and his mother – unusual, because Moss had heard his father say on many occasions, ‘Na come on, love ! One dog at a bone‘s enough !‘

But on this occasion, the affair promised to be less interesting than Moss had hoped. Whatever had provoked it, he found the subject of the ‘row‘ completely over his head.

‘Yer realize what it means, A suppose ?‘ his father was saying. ‘Yer can ferget all about gooin‘ ter t‘University !‘

There was some response from Jimmy, but too subdued for Moss to catch the words. His father went on,

‘Yer‘ll not find that all that easy just now ! Jobs don‘t grow on trees these days, yer know !‘

Now his mother spoke, and there was a note in her voice that Moss found strange and disturbing. Had he not known her better, he would have said she was crying.

‘A just ‘ope she realizes what she‘s done for yer, that‘s all !‘ she said, but his father broke in quickly,

‘Na, Lizzie, that‘ll do ! It teks two ter mek a bargain, yer know ! No, A‘m not gooin‘ to condemn a young lass, an‘ A‘m not sidin‘ wi‘ this young – A nearly said summat as A shouldn‘t ! But we s‘ll get nowheer that road|!‘

Moss‘s eyes were growing heavy. It had been an exciting day, and he was still not too happy about what the hymn called ‘the encircling gloom‘. Besides, there was nothing in this rigmarole to keep him any longer from his bed. He turned and felt for the knob of the bedroom door, and was soon warm again in the bed which he shared with Jimmy.

Long before his brother joined him, to lie dry-eyed and wakeful throughout the long night, Moss continued to sleep the deep and untroubled sleep of innocence.

 

Next morning, to Moss‘s deep annoyance, Mester Caxton decided that Arnold Sutcliffe would make a more convincing Becket than his fellows, for he was fair of hair and countenance, and stood a head taller than they. So Moss, whose dark hair and brown eyes made an obvious contrast, had to resign himself to playing the part of one of the four Norman knights. But at least it was the main part, and, as he began to weigh the pros and cons of Mester Caxton‘s choice, he began to appreciate the merits of the knight‘s costume as against the plain robes of the Archbishop, and found himself after all not unduly depressed.

Learning his lines furnished no problems. Long before the night of the performance he was word-perfect, and could give the whole of his attention to the matter of his acting and, even more important, his costume and make-up. In the matter of this last, one of the Archbishop‘s lines provided him with food for thought and the eventual key – ‘Out upon thee, thou swarthy knave !‘

Being not entirely certain what the word ‘swarthy‘ meant, Moss had recourse to the family dictionary, and then examined his face minutely in the cracked mirror by the stone sink in the kitchen. True, he was dark of hair and eyes, but swarthy – ? Not in the least.

Something would have to be done about it.

Grease-paint was unknown in that household, and no mention of it had been made by Mester Caxton. It was Moss‘s mother who eventually, and all unwittingly, provided the answer to his problem, by sending him on an errand to the chemist‘s shop on Carlisle Road for a ‘penn‘orth o‘ permanganate‘. He was vaguely familiar with this substance, since he had seen his mother pour a solution of the purplish crystals down the drain by the back door in summer weather – to ‘sweeten it‘, she said.

Drains not figuring largely in Moss‘s scheme of things, he might have dismissed the matter from his mind had his mother not inadvertently spilt a little of the solution on the sheet of newspaper which she had placed just inside the back-door after donkey-stoning the step.

To Lizzie, the accident was an unconsidered trifle, but the young Autolycus snapped it up at once, for he noticed that the wine-dark liquid, instead of turning the newspaper to its own ruby shade, as might have been expected, had instead stained the page a deep chestnut-brown.

Once his mother‘s back was turned, it was the work of a moment to dip a finger into what remained of the solution. At once he saw to his delight that it had exactly the same effect on his skin. Here was the answer to his prayers, the clear high road to a satisfying swarthiness.

He rummaged in her duster-box and found a piece of old shirt-tail, and used this to apply the solution to his wrist. The result was as swarthy as any Norman knight could have desired.

And now he recalled that the pen-drawing of the knight that Mester Caxton was using as his model showed him bare-armed almost to the shoulder. Moss stripped off his shirt and quickly turned both his arms into swart limbs of which any fighting man could be proud. Another look in the mirror showed him the ludicrous contrast between his arms and his face. It was the work of a few moments to match them up. The next time he appraised the tout ensemble in the mirror his dark eyes gleamed out from a face which any Hindu would have accepted as that of a man and a brother.

And now he remembered that part of his legs would also be seen above the cross-garters. He transformed them, too, to the same dusky hue as his arms and face, and the job was done. There was no doubt about it now. He was certainly swarthy.

He strutted up and down for some time, intoning his lines and brandishing an imaginary sword, until the thought struck him that his mother would soon be returning and that it would be wise to remove his make-up.

And now he discovered to his horror that grease-paint is one thing and potassium permanganate solution quite another. Soap and water, of which he was no fonder than any normal boy, and even a painful scarifying with his mother‘s scrubbing-brush, availed him naught. In the end he was forced to the conclusion that all his efforts were fruitless. Swarthy he was, and swarthy he would apparently remain – perhaps for ever.

What was he to do ? His mother must soon be home, and his sin would be manifest. He clattered out of the door, hurried down Fern Street, and along Carlisle Road to the chemist‘s shop.

Mester Simmonite seemed not to view the matter in quite the serious light that it warranted. Indeed, and much to Moss‘s annoyance, he seemed to find it a matter for mirth. Worse still, he had no solution to offer, real or figurative.

‘A‘m sorry, son, there‘s nowt A can do ! But yer can tell yer Mam not to fret – it‘ll wear off in a week or two|!‘

With dragging steps Moss made his way home, where the glow of gas-light in the kitchen told him that his mother had returned. He lifted the sneck as quietly as he could, slipped into the kitchen, and seated himself on the sofa at the back of the room, as far from the revealing light as possible.

His very silence and circumspection undid him.

Lizzie‘s approach to child-psychology was a simple one. Children who were unusually quiet were usually up to no good, and her son‘s efforts to efface himself aroused her darkest suspicions. She crossed the kitchen, placed a finger under his chin, and lifted his head.

All was revealed.

To say that she was appalled would be an under-statement, and, in the face of her evident displeasure and her determination to know the why and the wherefore, Moss had no defence. Haltingly, he recounted the whole story, ending in tones of reassurance.

‘It‘s awright, though, Mam ! Mester Simmonite says as it‘ll wear off in a week or two !‘

Lizzie, scornful of such easy assurances, dragged him off forthwith to the chemist‘s shop, but with no better result than her son. Slowly, and with the utmost reluctance, she began to accept that she must put up with a gipsy for a son for some time to come.

There was worse to come for Moss at school, where his novel appearance came in for some comment, none of it in terms of approval. Mester Caxton, who might have been expected to support his young pupil‘s efforts at verisimilitude, seemed to regard Moss‘s make-up as more appropriate to a nigger-minstrel show than a school play.

But the damage was done, and it was too late now to train an understudy in one of the major speaking parts. The play would have to go ahead with a Moor for a Norman knight.

Nor was that all. As the day of the performance drew near, Mester Simmonite‘s diagnosis was confirmed, and the dye began to fade. But it did so unevenly. Moss‘s face now promised on the night of the performance a more convincing clown than a knight in cardboard armour.

Fortunately for Moss‘s peace of mind, once the dye began to fade it proceeded apace. By the time the Inspector saw Standard Five‘s performance there was nothing in the appearance of any member of the cast to raise an inspectorial eyebrow.

For his part, the Inspector watched the performance with evident interest. Then, remembering his responsibilities, he gave it as his opinion to Miss Hardy that – while this sort of thing was all very well in its way, you understand – he hoped that it would not cause the school to lose sight of the need to concentrate on essentials. By which the Headmistress understood him to mean the three R‘s, pure and undefiled.

Miss Hardy in her turn lost no time in conveying the Inspector‘s verdict to Mester Caxton, leaving him to ponder with no little bitterness on the supreme impossibility of pleasing some people even part of the time, and especially those dressed in a little brief authority. Thus, he told himself, as others of his calling have done so often, is good teaching bedevilled by petty officialdom.

Moss had enjoyed it all hugely, as indeed had his proud parents. And, as his father said later, there‘s not many lads ‘as had a good tannin‘ as lasted t‘best part of a month.

 

But as all these things were being enacted in the realm of make-believe, other events of greater moment were taking place on the stage of the real world. While Moss‘s attentions were entirely absorbed in his own strutting and fretting, another ceremony was being planned, unheralded and deliberately unsung.

For the first time since he had left his cot, Moss now had a bed to himself. In a brief and surreptitious ceremony in a register office, James Garrett and Elsie Hanwell were joined in matrimony, and now occupied the sacred front-room until other arrangements could be made.

 

NEXT CHAPTER
RETURN TO CATALOGUE