The Hallamside Central Secondary School was all and more than Moss had expected.
A less partial observer might have judged it a fairly ordinary example of Late-Victorian Municipal Neo-Gothic. To Moss it was the stuff of his dreams. Had it not been for the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach which had lodged itself there some days earlier and troubled his nights ever since, he would have said that he was in the seventh heaven of delight.
He had to admit that one alarming aspect of this new experience was the absence of a single familiar face in all the hundreds milling around him. There was no denying that, from being cock of the walk at Grimesmoor Council School the only one to win a Scholarship that year, here he was a small fish indeed in a very large pool.
Even the bright new badge which, only yesterday, his mother had sewn on to the pocket of his new blazer – a badge which was a most impressive creation of bright golden wire on a green felt ground – seemed no longer to have quite the lustre it had so far enjoyed, now that it was but one among so many of its kind, and most of them no longer so conspicuous by virtue of their newness.
He came to himself at the sound of a voice raised above the general din.
‘Eigh up, thee !‘
He looked round to see whom the stranger intended by this. The call was repeated, and this time there could be no mistake. Hesitantly, he moved towards the speaker, a pimply youth who stood head and shoulders higher than himself.
‘What‘s thi name, then ?‘ asked the stranger.
‘Moss Garrett !‘ he replied, too quietly amid the other sounds.
‘What‘s tha say ?‘ the stranger said, his drawn brows heavy with menace. ‘Oppen thi gob, will tha ?‘
Moss repeated his name, this time more distinctly.
The stranger nodded, and turned to his mates.
‘What did A tell yer ?‘ he said. ‘Their kid‘s Jimmy Garrett !‘ And turning towards Moss again with an ugly leer, he added, ‘That‘s reight, innit ?‘
It was Moss‘s turn to nod. The speaker turned again to his friends.
‘A were reight, weren‘t A ? Their kid‘s Jimmy Garrett. ‘Im as were in t‘football team ! Tha knows, ‘im as were fooarced to get married !‘
The others sniggered, and one made a gesture which Moss failed to understand but which he took to be lewd. Knowing nothing of what the words implied, nor why they should occasion laughter, he yet felt that in some way his family‘s honour had been impugned. His protest was a reflex action.
‘No, ‘e warn‘t ! What‘s tha know about it, any rooad|?‘
Almost casually, but in the most explicit language, the ring-leader told him all he knew, in words so obscene that the blood rushed to Moss‘s cheeks. His embarrassment was clearly noticed at once, and gave rise to even more hilarity. Fight was clearly out of the question against such odds, and Moss resorted to flight. As he fled, a fresh stream of obscenities followed him.
Coming from the home which had sheltered him from such a world since his birth, Moss was all unprepared for such an encounter. It left him white and shaking, and with a brain whirling in confusion. The leaden weight in his stomach had now given place to a burning sense of outrage in his breast, a feeling which threatened to choke him, and to possess him to his very finger-tips. And, mingled with this sense of utter outrage, there was another sense of ignorance and bewilderment that blinded him to all that went on around him that day. It was as well that he was one of some hundred and thirty new boys, or he must surely have drawn the eyes of authority to his complete lack of attention to matters in hand.
All through the long hours of that day he raged inwardly at the thought that this day, the day he had longed for so ardently, should have been so befouled. But, as the time dragged on, he began to see that this new experience had been like no other and similar distasteful event in more ways than one, in that even the thought of home, which at all other times had represented warmth and a safe haven, now offered him no relief. His sense of outrage there would be no less than here. Only this time there would be no one to turn to for comfort, no one to confide in.
As he made his way home with dragging steps, he came slowly to a decision which grew in strength as home drew nearer, and which offered him if not comfort, at least the hope of enlightenment. Hardly stopping to answer his mother‘s enquiry as to how his first day had gone, he dropped his new satchel inside the kitchen door and set off for the new public library at Frith Park. His mother, supposing that he had gone off to find friends and astonish them with his exploits at his new school, shook her head in amusement.
But Moss had other designs. Books had been the key to most of the knowledge he had so far acquired. Now they must unlock the door to this mystery.
A later age would find it inconceivable that a boy could grow to Moss‘s years in total ignorance of what later came to be known as ‘the facts of life’. But in this Moss was far from unique. Such topics, he was still to learn, were the stuff of an adult conspiracy which had deprived many such innocents abroad of any knowledge of one of life‘s central mysteries.
Perhaps, as he later came to accept, he had been fortunate in being thus shocked into his own exploration of that mystery. In the end, his knowledge was fuller and freer than that of the foul-mouthed adolescent who, all unwittingly, had set his feet upon this path.
For now his mind was fully intent. Now he would know the truth of it. All of it . . .
Once inside the library he sought out the catalogue index, which eventually pointed him to the Anatomy and Physiology shelf. But here his search was thwarted, for the adult conspiracy extended even to this fount of knowledge. Every book which promised to be informative had been removed from the shelves and replaced with a book-sized block of wood, bearing on its edge, as on the spine of a book, its title and author, its classification number, and a typewritten footnote to the effect that the book itself could be obtained on application at the counter.
Moss had a suspicion not far short of near-certainty that any enquiry he might make at the counter would be abortive. He set himself to search through every book which did not hide under a bushel this secret of life.
His search was quite unavailing, until at last, in a bulky medical dictionary, his efforts were, at least in part, rewarded. Hefting the huge tome in his arms he carried it to one of the study-tables, and settled to his task.
He began with the subject of Marriage, but nowhere was it described as ‘forced‘. However, there was a cross-reference to Childbirth at the end of the passage. To this he turned eagerly, and began to read.
How much time passed as he read on and on he had no idea, but at length he came to himself to find his scalp icy cold and the knuckles of his hands white with tension.
Never as long as he lived would he forget his initiation into this central mystery. Never, never could he have believed that Mam had gone through this appalling ordeal to give him life.
But it must be so. He had too much faith in books to believe that in so important a matter they would give him the lie. This, he told himself incredulously, this is the truth. This is birth.
And even now he knew only the final act. He was still no wiser about the rest of the mystery. But he had now taken in all and more than he could endure at one time. He replaced the book on the shelf and saw that it was long past tea-time.
He remembered nothing of the journey home, except to wonder as he turned into Fern Street how he would contrive to face Mam, knowing what he now knew.
But when he lifted the sneck, it was to find his mother not at home. The only members of the family there to greet him were his brother Jimmy and his new bride, the unwitting causes of Moss‘s agony. Jimmy, not normally the most perceptive of humankind, could not fail to notice his brother‘s over-bright eye and flushed cheek, and asked the cause. To his utter astonishment, his question was answered with a flood of tears.
‘Come in ‘ere, our Moss,‘ he said, leading the way to the front room, where Elsie was knitting baby garments. She raised her eyebrows in enquiry but, before she could give it words, Jimmy indicated with a discreet signal that he would prefer to speak to Moss alone. With commendably quick understanding, she picked up her work and slipped from the room.
‘What‘s up then, our Moss ?‘ Jimmy asked, with unaccustomed tenderness.
Only a mind tormented beyond his endurance could have persuaded Moss to confide in his brother, for such subjects were simply not mentioned in the Garrett household, and most assuredly not before children.
‘It were a lad at school !‘ Moss blurted out. ‘E were on about you, our Jimmy !‘
Jimmy‘s face was a study in bewilderment.
‘About me ?‘
‘‘E said as our Jimmy were fooarced to get married !‘
There was a long silence. So long indeed that Moss lifted his head to look at his brother. There was something in Jimmy‘s expression that was new to Moss, something that combined sadness with a sort of wry amusement.
‘Dun‘t tha know owt about them things then, our Moss ?‘ Jimmy asked at length, and saw at once that there was but one answer.
Jimmy, himself only a little less new to this awful mystery than his brother, and still moved at times to a sense of wonder by it all, could not resist Moss‘s unspoken plea for help and enlightenment. Quietly, awkwardly at first, but then with an oddly dignified simplicity he told him the little he needed to know to put this morning‘s stark obscenities into a proper perspective.
Moss sat with bowed head throughout the recital, for he found it impossible to look into his brother‘s face. But once he had heard him out, he knew that his instinctive protest had been right. The stranger‘s lewd comments had been as far from the heart of the truth as his own earlier and appalling ignorance. And, knowing that, he was a little comforted.
When he had told his brother as much as he deemed needful, Jimmy reached out a hand which was none too steady and scuffed Moss‘s hair. Without a word Moss ran to the door, scrambled up the stairs to his own room, and sat on the edge of the bed, striving to come to terms with the thing that has troubled the mind of man since time began.
But at least, and much to his astonishment, he slept long and deeply that night, though he had gone to bed fasting. When he awoke, it was to an instant recollection of the previous day‘s events, and to the knowledge that today and all the days to come would be different from all the days of his ignorance.
Suddenly, and without warning, a wave of feeling swept over him, leaving him shaken to his depths. He recalled all that he had learned yesterday about man‘s birth in woman‘s travail, and was abashed by the prospect of meeting his mother again in the light of that overwhelming knowledge.
But when, at her insistent call, he made his way downstairs, it was all right. Mam was still Mam. Only he was different.
This time he responded more readily to her enquiries about his new school, until she remembered with a start that it was time for him to be off. Much to her astonishment, when he was finally ready he kissed her ‘Goodbye‘, without the need of a reminder.
He‘s growing up, she thought, as the door closed behind him, and wondered briefly how much longer he might remain innocent and unspoilt.