It is never a simple matter for weak and sinful man to know what it is that the Lord requires of him. What, by all outward signs, he seemed to require of the faithful at Hensley Street Chapel was unremitting activity.
The more ardent among the chapelgoers took closely to heart the invitation from Thessalonians, ‘Let us not be weary in well doing‘, so that scarcely a week of the year passed without the latest example of their activity appearing on the bill-board outside their small Shiloh. And what such posters most often trumpeted was an ‘Effort‘. There was the Sunday School Effort, the Bible Class Effort, the Young Married Women‘s Effort (though, strangely, no counterpart from the Young Married Men), the Missionary Effort, and other such delights in considerable number, all adding up to an assurance that no single member of the congregation (with the apparent exception of the Young Married Men), between lisping his first sentence and breathing his last, should avoid his rightful share of the Lord‘s work.
These ‘Efforts‘ were not remarkable for variety or originality. There was a noticeable lack of histrionic talent, linked to an equally noticeable abundance of convincing performance. Fortunately, the chapelgoing audiences were not in the least hypercritical, and were always as ready to applaud the abysmal as the passable.
Each of these offerings had – at least, for those regular chapelgoers who furnished the bulk of the audience and who aimed to miss no single Effort in the year – a characteristic flavour which was at once recognized and favourably compared with that of last year‘s Effort. This was somewhat surprising, for it would have taken a keen observer to notice any marked difference between the two, each year merely adding a little to the sum of tradition.
If, for example, it should happen to be the Primary School Effort, the audience could expect to hear from thirty-odd piping throats that Jesus wanted them for a sunbeam to shine for him each day – a desire which every single parent found fully justified, and which some of their teachers in their less happy dealings with these offspring were tempted to reflect might have been a good thing.
If the occasion chanced to be the Young Men‘s Effort, the audience was sure to be regaled by an earnest young man with a head of hair that might have been French-polished, and wearing a suicidally stiff collar, who asked – in tones the composer had surely not intended – that he be allowed like a soldier to fall. An encore being not only expected, but prepared for, he would then inform his audience, teetotallers to a man and a woman, that in cellar cool at ease he sat upon a barrel resting, ‘Companion mine the good red wine, Life‘s richest, truest blessing.‘ The assembled worshippers, who knew beyond all possible doubt that those lips had never touched liquor stronger than the Sacrament wine, seemed to see nothing in the least incongruous in his choice of songs, and applauded him to the echo.
And, though these occasions were traditionally familiar and predictable, there was always the chance of something unexpected, something that might pass into the folk-lore of Efforts, to be recalled in years to come with suitable embroidery. It might well be the case that the possibility of such an incident persuaded at least some of the audience to attend, and perhaps even the positive likelihood of it in such surroundings, much as a circus audience watches with bated breath the antics of the acrobat, half hoping he will fall off.
There was, for instance, the memorable night when Cecil Fanshawe, playing his familiar and well-loved role of Simon the stone-breaker, threw down his property rock with such gusto that it went clean through the wooden stage and took Cecil with it. Or the night that Ted Castledine, already growing rather elderly to be playing juvenile leads, and labouring under the handicap of having that very day had every tooth in his head extracted, delivered himself of the memorable line, ‘Come, let us be happy while we are young and good-looking !‘ and then leered at the audience winningly, and brought the house down.
Moss was well acquainted with Efforts, having taken part in them from his earliest days. But this year, the year of his tenth birthday, was different. It was the year of his first entirely solo performance since the disaster of the Anniversary Sermons.
He was carefully schooled by Miss Crowson, not only in the task of committing his lines to memory, but also in the important technique of ‘expression‘. This technique, obviously designed to guard against delivery in a dull monotone, and invented by some person deservedly forgotten, consisted of delivering lines of verse (and even, God forbid, prose) in a succession of vocal scales and arpeggios which owed much to music but little to meaning.
Moss, ever unquestioning in such matters, soon picked up the trick of it and in short order became appallingly adept. Three years later, he was to assault the ears of a schoolmaster with a rendering of Portia‘s speech on the subject of mercy which was rich in ‘expression‘. He met with disparagement where he had expected praise, and with the amused comment from old Hatband, ‘Garrett, it is a novel experience for me to hear dear old Will‘s words set to extempore music ! However, I‘m bound to say, it is not an experience I would wish to repeat !‘
But every theatrical experience rests upon a bargain or two struck between actor and audience. Hensley Street audiences would have been disappointed in a recitation entirely free of ‘expression‘. And, since learning by rote held no terrors for Moss, it allowed him ample time for the acquisition and abundant practice of the technique, to such excruciating effect that by the time the Effort was but a week away, he was barely comprehensible.
Then, on the Sunday morning before the Tuesday evening‘s Effort, he woke with an aching head and a sore throat, and all his efforts to conceal the state of his health were vain. By tea-time, he was clearly running a temperature.
Lizzie applied one of her sovereign remedies, half external, half internal. She smothered a piece of brown paper with goose grease and applied the plaster to her son‘s chest. Then she applied the medicament to a slice of bread and persuaded him to eat it, despite his lumpy throat. It was all to no avail. By the time morning came he was clearly worse, and by Tuesday morning past caring, though as a rule he rather liked being coddled. Lizzie reluctantly decided that the case was beyond her ability, and that the doctor would have to be called.
It was no easy decision to take, for the doctor must be paid, and there were no funds in the Garretts‘ always meagre coffers for such a purpose. Jim had been out of work now for some months, and had gradually exhausted the statutory supports. Having passed the stage when he was still eligible for ‘t‘Dole‘, he was now on the more stringent ‘Tea-leaf‘ – the local euphemism for Parish Relief.
But when Lizzie called him and made known Moss‘s condition, he hesitated only for a moment. Then he nodded his head, and decided to cross the bridge of payment when he came to it.
Doctor Pringle came, and diagnosed tonsillitis. There was not the slightest chance that Moss would be well enough to leave his bed for some days, and he was rather short with Lizzie on the subject of ‘auld wives‘ nostrums‘.
But worse was to come. In his view, Moss‘s adenoids and tonsils called for surgical treatment – or, as Maggie conveyed it later to Maggie Willett, ‘‘e‘s got ter ‘ave ‘is tonsils an‘ addynoids out.‘
Hospitals were far from being a familiar experience in the Garrett household, nor for that matter in the homes of their neighbours. Moss‘s terror was almost equalled by that of his mother, though she strove with might and main not to let him see it. Like most of those among whom she lived, her knowledge of anatomy was less than rudimentary, and ignorance added greatly to her fears. So her comforting words to Moss rang hollow, and failed to carry much conviction, and Moss continued to suffer from the horrors whenever his thoughts refused to be diverted from the coming ordeal.
So when at last the dreaded letter in the manilla envelope arrived, it was his father who broke the news to him.
‘Na, look ‘ere, son ! Nex‘ Monday yer Mam‘s gunna tek yer ter t‘Royal Infirmary ! An‘ A want yer ter promise me summat – ‘
‘Yes, Dad ?‘
‘A know yer upset about it, an‘ so‘s yer Mam. So A don‘t want yer ter goo upsettin‘ ‘er even more, d‘y‘understand ? So purra good face on it, theer‘s a good lad, eh ?‘
‘Yes, Dad !‘
‘It could be a lot worse, yer know. Yer‘ll not be stoppin‘ theer ! T‘doctor says as yer‘ll be ‘ome bi tea-time !‘
Moss‘s eyes searched his father‘s face for any sign of duplicity, found none there, and, a little comforted, lay back again. Then a sudden thought struck him, and he looked up at his father again.
‘Dad, shall A ‘ave to goo in t‘ambulance ?‘
It was one aspect of the operation about which he had mixed feelings. To most children in Grimesmoor an ambulance was a rare and an awesome sight, at once fascinating and terrifying, and Moss was no exception. He realled the few occasions on which he had seen an ambulance in Fern Street – few indeed, for in those days of ‘voluntary‘ hospitals, ambulances were called out only in cases of dire emergency or death-threatening disease; in short, when there was no other conceivable way of getting the patient to hospital
Nor was Grimesmoor‘s traditional aversion to ambulances a completely unfounded delusion, born of ignorance and superstition. All too often the presence of such a conveyance outside a neighbour‘s home told a sad tale of hope all but abandoned after home nursing had done all it could. And all too often the ambulance parked at the door was but a prelude to a hearse.
So one part of his mind had been dwelling on the unknown horrors of ambulances, about which he was completely ignorant; another part had toyed, though only for a moment, with the glory such an experience might bring.
He remembered Bernard Simmonite being taken away on a stretcher, covered with a scarlet blanket, to some unknown destination known as ‘t‘fever ‘ospital‘, there to be subjected to some process called ‘Izalation‘. Moss had no more idea than his friends what unspeakable things such a term could imply, but he could scarcely doubt the truth of the story, since the ambulance reeked of the stuff called ‘Izal‘.
‘No !‘ said his father, ‘you n‘ yer Mam‘ll be gooin‘ on t‘tram !‘
Moss was not altogether certain whether to be reassured or disappointed. Certainly a journey by tram was a rare and delightful event, especially if he were allowed to travel on the front of the top deck, open to the winds of Heaven and the one the tram itself generated. But, though relieved to find that there was no fear of his being kept in hospital. he felt vaguely let down. It would, after all, have been something to brag about later, and to travel to something as important as an operation surely justified something more impressive than a City of Hallamside Corporation tramcar, something a shade less infra dig.
But his father‘s next words at once cheered his flagging spirit.
‘Yer‘ll be comin‘ ‘ome in a taxi, though ! Yer Auntie Moll gev yer Mam some money ter bring yer back from t‘Infirmary that rooad !‘
A taxi ? Now that was more like it ! If he must be called upon to submit to something as vile as an operation, it surely justified transport as unique and dignified as a taxi. He had never been in a taxi in his life, nor, he was certain, had any of his friends. An operation and a taxi ride, and both in the same day would provide bragging-fuel for some time to come. He barely heard his father reminding him to thank Auntie Moll when he saw her.
The day of the operation dawned cold and raw, with a biting East wind. Lizzie could not hide her concern, for the doctor had stressed the importance of keeping the patient warmly wrapped on the journey home, and the thought of that long walk down the Infirmary drive haunted her throughout her preparations.
But when she confided her anxiety to Maggie Willett, she was met with scorn.
‘Nowt o‘ t‘sooart ! Don‘t talk so soft, love. Get t‘taxi to come up ter t‘door o‘ t‘ospital !‘
‘A can‘t do that !‘ said Lizzie. ‘They all queue up at t‘gates !‘
‘Awright,‘ said Maggie. ‘Then leave your Moss inside wheer it‘s warm an‘ goo down and tell t‘taxi to come up an‘ fetch ‘im ! They tek t‘ambulances up ter t‘door, don‘t they ? Yer can ride back up t‘drive yerself then|!‘
All this merely provided Lizzie with more cause for concern. She had estimated as nearly as she could the cost of a taxi from the Infirmary to Fern Street, and, knowing her sister-in-law‘s tendency to skin a flea where financial arrangements were concerned, she was apprehensive. Maggie brushed her fears aside.
‘Yer‘ve got plenty, Lizzie ! When yer get back in t‘taxi to get your Moss, jus‘ tell ‘im wheer yer want ter goo, and see as ‘e dun‘t start tekking yer t‘long way round. An‘ don‘t give ‘im a penny moor than that ‘alf-crown !‘
Lizzie weighed the advice, and was a little comforted. Something told her that things were not quite done this way in the world of taxis, but it sounded sensible advice.
Then a fresh anxiety invaded her mind.
‘Eigh up, Maggie, love ! What about t‘tip ?‘
Maggie‘s lip curled.
‘Tip ? Tip ? Nowt o‘ t‘sooart ! Yer not joy-ridin‘, yer know, tekkin‘ your Moss ter t‘Infirmary ! Tip ? A tell yer, any driver as expected a tip from me‘d gerra flea in ‘is ear ! An‘ quick !‘
No news could be kept secret long in Grimesmoor, no light hidden under a bushel. There was a fine muster of neighbours in the street to witness the departure of Moss and his mother for the hospital. They saw them off with repeated good wishes, assurances that they would be back before they knew it, that all would undoubtedly be well, and that God was good. This last and oft-repeated remark seemed to come most readily to the lips of those who never saw the inside of church or chapel, except at christenings and weddings.
Now that the hour was upon him, Moss was subdued. Had he been less preoccupied, he might have seen that his white-faced mother was in no better case, and needed, like him, little persuasion to break into sobs.
All this time, the prospect of the operation had bulked so large in Moss‘s thoughts that he had supposed that he would be alone in facing this hour of trial. He was astonished therefore to see, gathered in the echoing Out-Patients hall of the Infirmary, children to the number of some two dozen or more, all of them, he supposed. there for the same purpose.
Few of them seemed to be viewing the event with any more equanimity than he, and, for their age, they were an unwontedly silent group. Like him, they looked about them anxiously for any sight of fearsome instruments and the like terrors and, on the whole, their mothers were in no better case.
The business of signing the consent forms finally snapped their tenuous self-control, for it required their mothers to leave them unattended in the hall while they were signing the forms in the nearby office. Moss‘s carefully-schooled self-restraint was sorely tested as one child after another broke out into loud wails, which grew even louder when their mothers did not appear at once.
Moss was no less sorely tried than they, but, remembering his father‘s words, he managed somehow to fight back the tears, and the effort was clear to Lizzie as soon as she came through the door. She noticed the down-drawn brows and the half-scowl, and read it aright. At once she sat beside him, slipping an arm about his shoulders, and Moss, for the first and last time that day, gave way to his grief.
Wisely, Lizzie cradled his head more tightly and was silent, and by the time his name was called his tears had ceased. She gave him a quick hug, surreptitiously wiped his eyes under the pretence of wiping his nose, turned his face to hers and gave him a reassuring smile.
At the behest of the nurse in her crackling white apron and blue dress, he took off his jacket and jersey and his stout boots, and left them with his mother. Then he padded off after the nurse‘s retreating figure, the swing doors closed behind him, and Lizzie, close to tears herself, settled herself for what she had been warned would be a long wait.
On this occasion, Moss‘s natural curiosity was wholly suspended by ignorance, and by fear of the horrors he might see if he looked too closely. He looked neither to right nor left as he followed the nurse, but, even so, he could not miss the word ‘Theatre‘, and his heart all but stopped, only seeming to beat again when the door was left behind and instead he was led into a large hall.
The next moment the nurse had turned him round sharply so that he faced her, and quickly tied round his neck a kind of short white cape which fairly reeked of hospitals.
Moss‘s jaw ached with his shivering, and he yawned hugely. The nurse, seeing this, and becoming aware of his manful efforts to control his feelings, smiled encouragingly, patted his shoulder, and told him to climb up on to the table. He did so, lay back as she had indicated, and quickly closed his eyes.
‘There‘s a good boy !‘ a deep voice said, but Moss‘ eyes remained tightly closed.
The next moment he became aware of something soft and light covering his face. Startled, he opened his eyes, and the same deep voice said,
‘Close your eyes, there‘s a good boy, and breathe deeply !‘
At once there was an overwhelming smell, the same that he had noticed on the white cape. He gasped, and began to choke and to struggle. Immediately, strong hands clamped down upon his wrists, and held them firmly down on the table.
The choking increased. There came the rushing of a mighty wind. He was turning over, faster and faster, inside an enormous echoing drum. The roaring grew. And now it came in huge waves out of some vast wilderness, breaking on remote shores over aeons and aeons of time, drowning him. Then he knew no more.
When he began to come to himself again, his first sensation was of distant voices calling across vast frontiers of space. At length these voices became clearer, until at last they resolved themselves into the cries of children.
‘Nurse ! Nurse ! A want a drink o‘ water !‘
Almost conscious now, he became aware of an intolerable ache in his throat. Then he drifted away again and, when he next became aware of his surroundings the ache was there again, but this time accompanied by the certainty that he was going to be sick. He tried to struggle to a sitting position, and the next moment an arm was slipped about him and held him as he vomited into the basin.
He lay back again, the ache in his throat now worse than ever. Someone bent over him – a nurse, her face professionally calm and not yet quite clear to his swimming vision.
‘A want me Mam !‘ he whispered.
The head above him nodded.
‘You just have a little sleep now, there‘s a good boy ! And when you wake up your mother will be here !‘
Obediently, Moss closed his eyes, and the sounds of ‘Nurse ! Nurse !‘ faded as he drifted into sleep.
When he woke again, his mother was there as the nurse had promised she would be.
‘Come on, love !‘ she said. ‘It‘s time to goo ‘ome !‘
Home . . .
He began to scramble up from the straw palliasse on which he was lying, but his head swam again. He reeled and seemed about to fall, and Lizzie was obliged to support him until he was a little recovered.
He looked dizzily around him. The floor was covered with straw-filled mattresses, on each of which lay a child. Some, like him, were now beginning to sit up, some still lay sleeping, and some were crying noisily. A few, like Moss, were white and silent.
His one overwhelming desire was to be out of this awful place and home. Home, where Mam would surely be able to do something about this intolerable ache in his throat.
He remembered little of the journey. There was a pad of clean linen over his mouth, held in place by a woollen scarf. He was to hold it to his face tightly, his mother said, so as ‘not to catch cowd‘. He was scarcely conscious of the long-anticipated ride in the taxi. He wanted only to be home, home.
But when at last he was tucked up in his own bed, where Mam could minister to him, to his and to her heart‘s content, he found that not even Mam could do anything for the ache in his throat.