It was Whit Tuesday. For three days now the steel mills had been silent, the furnaces cooling, the canyons between the workshops echoing and still. The morning sun streamed down upon the town of Hallamside and its people, both unaccustomed to such clear air.
Moss Garrett, baptized Maurice but known to no one by that name, had awakened with the sun. He clattered out of the back-yard, through the entry which served the terrace of houses and which always rang to the sound of his feet like the inside of a bell, and out into the street, where he found an unaccustomed quiet. He made his way to the lower end of Fearn Street, and turned to the left in the direction of the Three Crowns.
And there it was, the crown and the symbol of the day . . .
Reared up behind the wall of the pub stood the wooden mast some twenty-five to thirty feet in height, its gleaming white surface planed and sanded to a glassy smoothness, awaiting the soft soap, the contestants and the crowd of rapt onlookers.
And this year Joe was taking part – Joe, his brother, at the age of seventeen deep-voiced, and broad of shoulder. But even Moss‘s adoration, and his unshakable conviction that with Joe all things were possible, couldn‘t quite still his forebodings. His faith was tempered by the knowledge that this was a contest in which very few succeeded.
He‘d come by that knowledge from a reliable source. Albert Smith had instructed him in these matters – Albert of the bad teeth, and the devilish smile, and his pipe which was seldom lit, and then only if the tobacco was scrounged. If Albert was to be believed, he had himself been a mighty exponent of the art of climbing the greasy pole, and one of the very few to have claimed the prize – and the cup that went with it. But that was many years ago; now in his old age Albert was reduced to holding up the wall of the Three Crowns and talking to small boys for want of a credulous audience.
‘Sithee, lad, it‘s like this ! Fust tha mun ‘ave t‘reight build forrit, see ? A gret lanky lad‘s no use for t‘greasy powl ! Tha wants a good stocky lad wi‘ some solid timber in ‘is legs ! There‘s no sense in trustin‘ to thi ‘ands, tha sees – it‘s no use tryin‘ to ‘ang on wi‘ them ! Besides, tha needs thi ‘ands for gerrin t‘soot outer t‘bag ! No, it‘s thi thighs ! It all depends on thi thighs ! If tha can‘t keep a grip wi‘ thi thighs, tha‘rt done !‘
Moss thought of Joe, doubtless still sleeping soundly at home, and wondered again if Joe had the thighs for the job. True, he was short and stocky of build, well able to swing Moss high above his head and hold him there squealing with delight. But of recent days his mother had taken to saying ‘Our Joe‘s shootin‘ up a bit lately !‘ and that he would soon be as tall as his Dad, and then she added, ‘E‘ll be coortin‘ next, A shouldn‘t wonder !‘
Moss had no time for such fripperies. He was worried about Joe‘s height. If Mam was right about him shootin‘ up, next year might be too late. He‘d voiced this fear to his brother, only to be rewarded with scorn. Joe, it seemed, did not share Moss‘s regard for Albert Smith‘s expert counsel.
‘‘Im ! That boozy old devil ! What‘s ‘e know about it ?‘
In vain did Moss recount Albert Smith‘s former exploits and his insistence on stout thighs. In vain did he beg Joe not to dismiss such advice too lightly.
‘"E does know, our Joe ! ‘E does ! ‘E won t‘cup ‘issen when ‘e were a lad !‘
To which Joe replied, not without a grain of truth. that if all those who bragged of having won the cup had actually done so, it would call for a much bigger cup to get all the names on the side of it.
Joe himself inclined to the view that it was mostly the luck of the draw that decided the winner. If you were drawn early, while the pole still held its full quota of soft soap, you hadn‘t much of a chance. What you needed was a bag of good rough furnace-soot, a handful or two of fuller‘s earth mixed in with it – and a high number in the draw.
Moss looked at the yellowed face of the clock in Roper‘s window. Ten o‘clock. He knew that the draw would not be made until eleven at the earliest, and wondered what he could possibly do to fill up such a vast desert of time. He decided to make his way home, to see whether Joe was up yet, and whether he felt himself to be in good shape.
It was a decision he regretted the moment his mother clapped eyes on him.
‘Oh, theer y‘are, our Moss ! Yer Dad‘s been lookin‘ for you !‘
‘What for, Mam ?‘
Lizzie Garret knew of old that ingenuous look on her son‘s face, and was not deceived.
‘Yer know right well what for ! Yer‘ve got that brass to clean at t‘chapil ! An‘ well you know it !‘
Moss‘s heart sank. Not for the first time he cursed his ill fate at having been born the son of a chapel caretaker. Cleaning the chapel brasses, he knew, was a three-hour job. The greasy pole contest would be all over by the time he was through.
‘Aw, Mam ! It teks ‘ours ! A want ter see t‘greasy powl !‘
Even as he made the protest he knew it was futile. The chore of brass-cleaning had already been postponed from the Saturday at his own request, on the pretext that it was a holiday. That cat wouldn‘t fight again, and he knew it.
His mother took in the situation at a glance.
‘The longer yer stand theer mitherin‘, our Moss, the longer it‘ll tek yer !‘
He ran all the way to the chapel, turning over possible stratagems, and burst in upon his father, who was dusting the varnished pews in the unlovely brick tabernacle. All but incoherent with the effort of running, Moss blurted out,
‘Dad – ! Dad, can A – can A goo in time ter watch t‘greasy powl ?‘
His father, hands on hips, regarded his small son judiciously.
‘Yer‘ve gorra couple of ‘ours almost ! If I find yer‘ve done t‘job properly yer can goo at twelve o‘clock, an‘ finish t‘brass after dinner !‘
Moss‘s scowl was purely for form‘s sake. He had not expected such bounty – and so engrossed did he eventually become in his task that it was his father who reminded him that time was up.
‘Off yer go ! An‘ don‘t you forget, son ! Duties first, rights after !‘
But Moss was already away, the fear of missing even one moment of the contest lending wings to his studded boots. As he came in sight of the pub, he realized that the contest was already well under way. The sight and sound of the crowd spurred him on; he was in despair at the thought that he might have missed Joe.
He skidded to a halt by Roper‘s window to read the details of the draw. There it was ! Pinned to the window-frame, and written in Herbert Roper‘s clerkly hand. There were thirty contestants. Joe was drawn twenty-fourth ! Moss‘s heart sang with joy.
The crowd was drawn up around the wall of the pub twenty or thirty deep. Moss dived in among the trousered legs, hopsack aprons, and skirts, paying no heed to the cries of ‘Come back ‘ere, yer little devil you !‘ and the like. And at last he reached the front row, to see the eighth competitor making his bid for local fame.
It was a vain bid. Less than halfway to the summit, the youth reached behind him for a handful of soot. But he was not well prepared; the bag did not come easily to hand. He reached farther round and tried to pull the bag into a handier position, and the shift of weight was all that was needed. His hands clutched at the pole uselessly, his legs convulsively gripped the slippery surface, but all in vain. Amid shouts of laughter, he plummeted down to land on the straw bales, his effort over for that year.
Moss looked up to the top of the pole. The small Union Jack fluttered there, still untaken.
One by one the contestants were eliminated. Moss began to wonder if, after all, Joe was right about the luck of the draw. Over the hubbub, a voice called,
‘Contestant Twenty-Four ! Joseph Garrett !‘
Moss‘s stomach lurched and tightened. He felt suddenly cold and sick . . .
A pause. Nothing was happening. What could have gone wrong ?
Then the familiar head of Joe came into view over the wall of the pub, climbing slowly and steadily. A voice from somewhere above Moss‘s head said, drily, ‘Aye, A allus fancy a slow starter, mesen !‘ There was an immediate murmur of agreement, mixed with some laughter and disapproval of the interruption. Moss kept his eyes fixed steadfastly on Joe‘s figure.
A third of the way now, and still climbing slowly. Halfway, and Joe stopped. There was an audible indrawing of breath from the crowd. Moss‘s breathing seemed to stop entirely.
But Joe showed no concern, and Moss felt rather than saw the iron grip of the thighs in the borrowed working-trousers. Then, slowly and deliberately, Joe reached one hand to his side and drew forth a handful of soot. Moss noticed with approval how sweetly the bag came to hand.
Still gripping with his thighs, Joe reached up cautiously, but not so far as to weaken their grip, and spread the soot and fuller‘s earth over the entire surface of the next foot or so of the pole above him. Then he replaced his hand on the pole, and inched himself up another foot – eighteen inches – and stopped again.
There was a murmur from the crowd, rising to a clamour as they saw that Joe was reaching for the bag again. Once more, and painstakingly, he covered the pole above him while his thighs maintained their grip. And once more he inched himself up another eighteen inches, and stopped again.
The voice above Moss‘s head growled,
‘Yon lad‘s gorra ‘ead on ‘is shoulders, tha knows ! "E reckons there‘ll be nobbut a skerrick o‘ soot on ‘t top o‘ yon pole an‘ ‘e‘s mekkin‘ sure !‘
Moss held his breath as he recalled what Albert Smith had said about the dangers of climbing slowly.
‘Aye, it sounds awreight, but it‘s a gamble, tha sees ! Tha‘rt gamblin‘ on thi thigh muscles ‘owdin‘ out long enough ter get thi theer !‘
And this was the gamble Joe was taking. Moss hardly dared to look.
Four feet to go now. Less. Another foot or so and Joe might snatch at the prize.
But he stopped again, and again covered the surface above him. Then slowly, more slowly than before, for he was visibly tiring, he heaved himself up the narrowing mast. Then, with one final heave from his thighs, he reached up – and the prize was his !
The crowd let out its pent-up breath in one gasp, and the cheering began. Almost weeping with joy, Moss saw the white-faced Joe slide swiftly down the pole and vanish from sight. He told himself that he didn‘t care now how many more reached the top. Joe had done it ! Nothing else mattered. Joe had done it\!
And now an extra savour was added to the crowd‘s excitement. Secure in the knowledge that someone would take the cup this year, the spectators could now luxuriate in the possibility that Joe might yet be required to share the glory.
They were to be disappointed. Despite all Joe‘s careful preparation, no other contestant came within six feet of the top to replace the flag as his sign of triumph. Joe was the undisputed winner.
Moss could not recall a more glorious day . . .
One by one the crowd drifted away, only the more ardent staying behind for the prize-giving. Moss stood rooted to the spot, his eyes fixed on the gate of the pub yard, beyond which he was forbidden to go. And at last Joe came, bearing the cup, and Moss ran to meet him, his own cup of happiness brimming over.
But Joe had no eyes for his small brother. He was looking past Moss to someone else. Moss stopped at a loss, and looked round. Who could it be ?
A voice called. ‘Joe ! Here !‘ A girl‘s voice.
Moss wheeled round and looked at Joe, turned again and looked at the girl.
Ellen Armitage ! A girl ! And she the one to share Joe‘s triumph !
Turning on his heel, he ran blindly, stumbling against one person after another, and at last reached the haven of his own garden. There he rested his forehead against the rough woodwork of his rabbit-hutch and abandoned himself to his misery.
His mother spread the clean tea-cloth over the pancheon of dough, and crossed to the stone sink to wash her hands. As she passed the window she caught sight of her small son.
‘What‘s up wi‘ our Moss ?‘ she said, to no one in particular. ‘E looks as though ‘e‘s lost a bob and found a tanner !‘
But then who would expect a woman, a mere woman, to understand such things ?