MOSS

CHAPTER 24

Excellently Done
Twelfth Night I, v

Apart from family good wishes, birthdays met with scant ceremony in the Garrett household. But, though Moss‘s tenth birthday went all but uncelebrated, even within the immediate family circle, it did not go unheralded by the teachers at Grimesmoor Council School. Uplifted by a hope of success that 1927 seemed to promise, they said to themselves that this year, surely this year, we shall have at least one ‘Scholarship‘.

In those days, the bye-laws of the Corporation of the City of Hallamside required every child not a congenital idiot to be presented, between his tenth and eleventh birthdays for examination in the skills of Arithmetic (Practical), Arithmetic (Intelligence) and English Composition. The claim for this requirement was that it would provide equality of opportunity -– as, indeed, it did, if only in the sense that a time of famine provides equal opportunities to starve.

The process of selection consisted of two hurdles, at the first of which a great many more than half the contenders were eliminated. From those who remained, a second hurdle weeded out a fraction almost as large. And so, at the close of this somewhat unequal contest, by an exercise of tactics which only political man could devise, exactly the right number of children survived to fill that year‘s vacancies in the first year of the Hallamside Secondary Schools.

It was sufficient comment on the system that, in the ten years of Moss‘s life, with one or two remarkable exceptions, the only children to have been selected from Grimesmoor Council School came from his own family. An impartial observer might have concluded that a sieve so rigorous in its ability to eliminate the unwanted could only have been justified by those who believed that whatever is, is right.

In such a situation, even Moss‘s candidature could not be regarded as a walk-over, the more so as he suffered from a besetting weakness in Arithmetic (Intelligence), a weakness which was a source of gnawing anxiety to Mester Caxton. That good man could only conclude that the very gifts of imagination and invention which guaranteed his pupil a comfortable passage through the English Composition paper seemed to become a positive drawback when he was faced with the Arithmetic (Intelligence) paper, persuading him that this particular branch of knowledge was for him a quickset hedge, impossible to penetrate.

Most of these problems, Moss discovered, seemed to concern themselves with taps emptying and filling tanks, often and confusingly at the same time (though for what conceivable purpose was never revealed), or with workmen digging trenches (though for what purpose was never stated), or with agricultural workers ploughing fields (a human activity which could hardly have been more remote from the restricted bounds of Moss‘s experience).

For the majority of children presented for the first examination, such problems were simply not understood and just as simply not attempted. Moss‘s case was quite different, in that he laboured under two difficulties which had apparently never before been experienced by any of the Grimesmoor Council School teachers.

The first was a tendency to invest these tapsters, workmen, and labourers in the field with the riches of his own imagination so that they became not abstract questions to do with arithmetic, but beings of flesh and blood with human problems. This first tendency led inevitably to the second in that these problems inevitably took on all the aspects of intractability, illogicality and waywardness which characterize most human problems, and which have plagued mankind since the dawn of time. These questions in Arithmetic (Intelligence), in short, seemed to Moss infinitely more difficult than in fact they were.

He met with no such difficulty in Arithmetic (Practical), and in Composition he was gifted beyond his years. But his blind spot over Arithmetic (Intelligence) so vexed the spirit of Mester Caxton that in the end, with a sense of despair which overcame all his natural reluctance, he took the burden to the Headmistress and laid it on her shoulders.

Miss Hardy was not at all displeased to be provided with the chance to show one of the younger generation of teachers what was what, and Moss found himself going to the Headmistress every morning for special coaching. The result was that Miss Hardy found his grasp of arithmetical problems less secure than she would have liked, and little firmer after two or three weeks.

To do the Headmistress and Mester Caxton justice, it was not the sort of dilemma they faced every day. It was one thing to deal, as they were often called upon to deal, with those for whom the problem was that the subject was beyond their grasp, and quite another to deal with Moss, who seemed intent on finding difficulties where none existed.

Logic and reason seemed to insist that a child so gifted in all the processes of Arithmetic ought surely to take such problems in his stride. His knowledge of tables was all that it should be; his handling of the processes of calculation was invariably sure; and if he stumbled at all it was only through carelessness or over-confidence – neither of which was likely to happen in the conditions of a formal examination.

In the end, headmistress and teacher decided that only familiarity would breed contempt, and they abandoned all the mechanical processes, and provided Moss with a steady diet of problems, set by Mester Caxton new every morning, and eventually taxing Moss‘s powers of imagination and invention to the limit.

It ought to have worked, but it did not.

All the Headmistress‘s long experience and the admittedly shorter span of Mester Caxton‘s had advised them that this way lay salvation. But, as the number of problems increased, Moss – out of sheer boredom – retreated ever deeper into the realms of imagination. And as his flights of fancy soared higher, so did the number of errors in Arithmetic (Intelligence).

In the end, Miss Hardy did something quite unprecedented. Remembering her meeting with his mother, she decided to call on these reserves. She sent for Lizzie, explained the difficulty, and recruited her help. Lizzie, somewhat out of her depth, did her best to grasp the nub of the problem, but was reluctant at first to commit herself to something she so little understood. But when she realized that all she had to do was to supervise Moss‘s nightly forays into the lists against arithmetical problems, she agreed readily enough.

All unwittingly, Miss Hardy had solved the problem, though by no means in the way she had intended. Secure in the knowledge that Moss was concentrating nightly on Arithmetic (Problems) she left Mester Caxton to turn the spotlight on to Arithmetic (Practical) and English Composition.

For two or three nights Lizzie honoured her side of the bargain and kept her son up to the collar, but then the care of her own concerns, which were Legion in such a large family, occupied her mind to the exclusion of Moss‘s homework. Left to himself, Moss began to fill the time with matters of greater interest to him than problems in arithmetic, with the result that his errors became fewer in number, and Miss Hardy could congratulate herself upon her acumen and rub into Mester Caxton the humiliation of knowing that he had failed to find an answer.

If the truth be told, she was not at all concerned with Moss‘s chances in the Preliminary Examination, since brethren much weaker than he had surmounted that hurdle without too much difficulty. It was the Final ‘Merit‘ Examination, to which so few were called and even fewer chosen, which haunted her.

 

And as expected, Moss passed the Preliminary Examination without faltering in his stride. There now remained only the spectre of the Merit Examination.

And then, when they could all have looked to relax a little in their efforts before girding their loins for the last and best effort, another and altogether unexpected spectre arose to haunt them. The chronic ear disease from which he now suffered flared up again and began to take further toll of his health.

Matters came to a head with the visit of the school doctor – the only medico most Grimesmoor children were ever likely to meet. Moss was well accustomed to these visits, and to the doctor‘s evident satisfaction with his patient‘s rude health, at a time when ignorance and poverty were sapping the strength of many of his fellows.

But this year was different.

The doctor looked at the narrow chest, the too-prominent rib cage and the deep-set eyes. Then he carefully inspected Moss‘s ears, consulted his notes, looked dubious and muttered darkly. He asked Lizzie the traditional questions about his diet, a necessary inquisition when so many children subsisted on little more than white bread, margarine and condensed milk.

By now, Lizzie was thoroughly alarmed. The doctor had wielded his stethoscope on Moss‘s chest so long and so thoroughly that one dread word was beginning to take shape in her mind despite all her frenzied efforts to brush it aside. Nor could her lips frame the question which she knew she ought to ask.

The doctor looked up, caught her eye, and saw the signs of distress with which he was all too familiar. He knew only too well what the unspoken question was, and the dread word it concealed.

‘Mrs – er – Garrett, isn‘t it ? Well now, Mrs Garrett – !‘ He broke off and made sign to the nurse to take Moss away and to supervise the putting on of his outer garments. Then he turned again to Lizzie.

‘The boy‘s in need of building up,‘ he said. ‘Let me see – he was born during the War, wasn‘t he ?‘

Lizzie could only nod, and wonder where all this was leading.

‘Yes,‘ he said, ‘children of that period often did get a bad start. Rationing and all that – ‘

He paused, and Lizzie‘s heart seemed too big for her breast. She dreaded what was to come, but could not find the courage to frame the question.

‘I‘m going to recommend him for a spell at Netherside,‘ he said.

Then he saw the naked fear leap into Lizzie‘s eyes, and hastened to reassure her.

‘It‘s all right, Mrs Garrett ! Really it is ! There‘s no question of TB, I’m quite sure ! Consumption, you know. Nothing of the kind ! But the lad is run down, and in that condition he‘s always at risk. So what we‘ll do is build him up with rest and a good diet, and give him some treatment for that ear. He‘ll probably be away for a month or two, but I think we can promise you he‘ll be a new boy when we‘ve done with him ! I‘ll see to it that arrangements are made, and we‘ll let you know as soon as we can find him a bed !‘

 

Now dressed, and ignorant of all this, Moss waited with ill-concealed impatience for his mother. So, when at last she appeared, he quite failed to notice the bright spot in her cheek. Nor was he aware, trotting beside her as they made their way back to Fern Street, that she was quiet and withdrawn.

Wisely, Lizzie decided that she would leave the breaking of the news to her son in the capable hands of Jim. He, as she had expected, took the news calmly enough, called Moss in from play, and broke the tidings to him.

Moss searched the faces of his father and mother to see how he ought to receive the news. Once assured that there was no prospect of ‘operations‘, his first alarm was quickly dispelled. Indeed, he began to see positive advantages in the turn of events, the bragging over the operation having worn thin. He knew that this was an experience which none of his schoolmates had enjoyed, and he would now be able to brag freely in the absence of any threat of personal danger.

But in their preoccupation with this new turn of events, both Lizzie and Jim had overlooked one important matter. The Merit Examination was only weeks away, and if Moss should be called into the convalescent hospital before that date, his chance of a scholarship might be lost, and with that his place at a Secondary School. Not knowing what they or anyone could do in this situation, they experienced all the torments of those who must suffer events rather than mould them to their own desires.

In the event, their fears were groundless. On the very morning of the Merit Examination, there came a card from Netherside Hospital to say that they would expect Moss in ten days‘ time.

The news bade fair to drive from Moss‘s mind all thought of lesser considerations such as a Merit Examination. He scarcely noticed the strange surroundings of the school where the examination was to be held, the white apprehensive faces around him, the unnaturally subdued air of the playground before they were called in to take their places, the solemn hush of the examination room, and the virgin sheets of paper and the printed examination sheet. His imagination was busily toying with thoughts of ‘t‘Ospital‘, the opportunities for boasting when eventually he came home, and the curdling then of his schoolfellows‘ blood with gory and quite imaginary detail.

So the fears of Miss Hardy and her staff were set at naught. He read the questions, and found them almost beneath his notice, they were so easy. He had a moment‘s panic when the Arithmetic (Intelligence) papers were given out, but his other preoccupations helped him to the realization that the questions were by no means insoluble.

By the time he arrived home, he had all but dismissed such trifling matters from his mind, and astonished his parents by his casual responses to their questioning about the examination. Moss was much too busily occupied in the glorious contemplation of other and more exciting events to come.

 

However, on his arrival at Netherfield Hospital, one new and unpleasant experience threatened to mar the vision splendid.

It happened when Moss had been at the hospital for some ten days – days in which the pangs of homesickness had tormented his days and troubled his nights. Only now was he at last beginning to enjoy himself.

And then this new threat to his peace of mind raised its head.

Out of bed for the first time, he joined his fellow-patients in the day-room for the daily dispensation of cod-liver oil in a spoon which might have been designed to stretch small mouths to the fullest. Then, with no warning, there was made known to him a form of terror every bit as bad as that he had experienced at the Chinese laundry. And with its coming the pangs of homesickness returned with added poignancy.

Between the ward in which he slept and the day-room which was used whenever the weather prevented the boys from taking their pre- and post-prandial rest out of doors there was a corridor painted in the universal cream and green. In itself, this corridor was harmless enough, but halfway along it there was a door with a glass panel curtained on the inside, in the manner of the Chinaman‘s door, and housing, he was now told, of all unspeakable things ‘a real skellington‘.

Worse than that, so the tale ran, boys who misbehaved themselves might find themselves thrust into this room and the door locked behind them, there to reflect upon their misdeeds, and repent.

Even if the stories had been true, and Moss had no way of knowing that they were not, the chances of his being so incarcerated were slight, for he was a biddable child, given to high spirits from time to time but entirely free from low cunning or deliberate misdemeanour. But nothing could lessen his terror of that appalling room, and his determination to pass that door with all possible speed was renewed every time he was required to traverse that corridor.

On his second morning out of bed he was doing this when he was stopped by a peremptory command.

‘Garrett ! Don‘t you know the rule about this corridor to the day-room ? If I find you running again, you‘ll be punished, do you hear ?‘

His mind, already preoccupied with the terror of that room, registered that word ‘punish‘. His blood seemed to freeze in his veins, and he stopped dead in his tracks and turned to face the sister.

Something in his rigid stance and his eyes caught Sister Appleyard‘s attention. She drew near, and saw that he was trembling uncontrollably.

‘What is it, Garrett ?‘ she asked. ‘What is the matter ?‘

But Moss could not persuade his quivering lips to frame a sound. After a moment or two, she took him by the arm, led him to her office and quickly wormed out of him his horror of that room.

Her first thought was to take him there and show him how groundless were his fears. But she had not practised as a children‘s nurse all these years without learning something about the ways of boys. She had a shrewd suspicion that, once his fears were exorcised, he might well join the ranks of those who took delight in curdling the blood of newcomers.

So that afternoon, in the presence of them all, she introduced them to ‘Charlie‘, the anatomical model once used in lectures in the days before Netherside became a convalescent hospital. Familiarity, as she had suspected, soon brought not contempt but interest. Her decision, taken on the spur of the moment, had been an inspiration. In one blow, ‘Charlie Wag‘, as he came to be known, was stripped of his terrors, as was the room where he had lain unused for years.

But out of that incident there was still better to come for Moss. Sister Appleyard began to pay more attention to this dark-eyed ten-year-old in the navy blue jersey and the sensible boots. The next time the weather was fine and warm and the boys sat outside in their deck-chairs, protected with a blanket, she deputed to another task one of the two nurses whose duty it was to supervise them, took her place facing the ranks of boys, and called to Moss to bring his chair and blanket and to sit beside her.

He noticed that she had on her knee a newspaper – always a magnet to Moss, but at home almost always monopolized by his father. It had been folded so as to allow Sister Appleyard to pass the time with the crossword puzzle, something of a novelty at that time. She noticed his interest, and soon discovered that this new craze was not yet familiar to him. He had to be introduced to the puzzle, and, to her astonishment, grasped the idea almost before she had done explaining it. He astounded her even further by the speed with which he solved the first of the clues.

And so in this strange fashion another encounter happened in Moss‘s life-long love-affair with words and their ways. Neither he nor Sister Appleyard could have foreseen the consequences which were to flow from her sudden impulse to learn more about him. Years later, Moss would recall the incident of his first crossword with wry amusement, and Sister Appleyard with affectionate gratitude.

 

Slowly, as the days of that Summer slipped by, Moss filled out and his cheeks took on the glow of health. The day came at last when he was pronounced fit to leave, and to give place to another casualty of the lean years.

His delight at being home again knew no bounds, but there was more delight to come. Before she removed her coat or took the fearsome hat-pin from her sombre Sunday hat, Lizzie said to her son,

‘A‘ve got summat fer you, our Moss ! A surprise !‘

He was all agog on the instant, and looked around him for the evidence of the surprise. He had not expected delights beyond this homecoming.

He turned back to look at his mother and saw that she was holding out a letter. His face spoke his bewilderment, for never before in his life had he received a letter. So he was not at all astonished to see that the envelope was addressed not to him, but to his mother and father.

‘Goo on, then !‘ she said, beaming. ‘Oppen it !‘

He opened it as he was bidden.

And then he learned to his utter delight that indeed, indeed, Grimesmoor Council School could boast at least one Scholarship that year.

 

 

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