The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 9Robertson Davies
• SATURDAY •
Discerned symptoms of a cold deep in my inner being today, and immediately set to work to circumvent it. For twenty-four hours before a cold breaks out in its unmistakable symptoms of salt rheum, cough and tædium vitæ I suffer from tremblings of the spirit and a sense of impending doom; during this period I consume glass after glass of sodium bicarbonate in hot water; sometimes it does the trick and sometimes it does not. I got the idea that it would stave off a cold from a man who subsequently died of pneumonia, so I may be on the wrong track. But the results, whether healthful or not, are certainly violent. My frail form is racked by horrendous belchings, like the roars of a lion. The Chinese are said to frighten away evil spirits by beating gongs; I have my own not wholly dissimilar method.
• SUNDAY •
A cold, the like of which has never before confronted medical science, has me in its grip, and my head feels as though it had been roughy scooped out with a tin spoon, and stuffed with soiled laundry. My sense of taste has completely gone; I cleaned my teeth with a widely-advertised drain-opener tonight and did not even notice until it ate the bristles off my toothbrush. Went to bed, propped up on many pillows, so that I should not strangle in the night. Had a chest-rub, a hot drink, and crunched up a mouthful of aspirin before going to sleep. Woke, some hours later, having dreamed that I was in the grip of a big dog, which was tossing me from side to side and barking furiously. Was alarmed to find that in truth I was being thrown all over the bed by some mysterious agency, and the sound of deep, angry barking was deafening. As consciousness returned, I realized that I was having a Coughing Fit. As the old song has it:
I attempt from love’s sickness
To fly, in vain;
For I am myself
My own fever and pain.
I was myself my own dog, bark and all; each paroxysm raised me at least two feet above the bed, and then as I emitted a frightful roar it flung me down again. This went on for some time—long after I had begun to ask of Death where was its sting? But everything passes in this world, and at last I fell asleep, and dreamed that I was being suffocated.
• MONDAY •
Today I live in the gray, muffled, smelless, puffy, tasteless half-world of those who have colds.
• TUESDAY •
Made the acquaintance of a rum-drinking budgerigar this evening. Was chatting with some people who offered me a glass of rum, and after I had been convinced that they were not joking and not crazy,6 I settled down in the cosy beatitude which comes over a man who has unexpectedly been given a drink. At this moment their budgerigar broke out of his cage, whizzed across the room and settled on my shoulder. I thought it was my simple and child-like nature which had fascinated him, but I was wrong. He cake-walked along my sleeve, suddenly dipped his beak into my glass and took a hefty swig; luckily Nature has not equipped budgerigars with much in the way of a gullet, so he didn’t get more than his share. He had a few more gulps, and then flew off to a mirror, in which he kissed his own reflection several times, with evident satisfaction. It has been years since I had enough rum to provoke any such ecstasy; there are advantages in a limited capacity.
• WEDNESDAY •
A man who had been poking his nose into the MS. of this Diary told me he didn’t think it was very funny. This is the sort of comment which makes me secrete adrenalin by the bucketful. First of all, how did the ridiculous assumption spring up that my Diary was meant to be funny? What record of man’s life, shot through and through with toil and anguish, disappointment and shame, frustration and denial is ever funny? When Tolstoy gave up wealth and rank and, in an agony of pity and idealism, tilled the land with his peasants, was it funny? When Gauguin left a secure life in Paris and went to paint the beauties of Tahiti, casting his lot with savages, lepers and degenerates, was it funny? And when Marchbanks, furnace-fried and garden-torn, commits his reflections to his Diary, is that funny? No, baboon! No, donkey! Tragic, mystic, sublime, perhaps. But only a coarse and warty soul could find food for laughter here.
• THURSDAY •
My coal bin is empty at last. For weeks I have been feeding my furnace a mixture of coke, slack, wood-shavings, cannel coal and odds and ends of rope and raffia from the floor of my coal bin, and now it is all gone. I shall not buy any more. I am, I think, a tolerant, easy-going fellow, but when it is suggested that I should spend any more money on that accursed furnace this year, everything goes black before my eyes, and I fall on the floor, foaming at the mouth and uttering animal cries. Of course, I cannot freeze. I have a woodpile, and I shall keep my furnace burning with that. If, when it is all done, the weather is still cold, I shall move to an hotel. My furnace does not like wood, and makes horrid stinks when given wood to burn. It shoots smoke up its heating pipes, and heats up its chimney, and keeps my whole house at the temperature and atmosphere of an Indian tepee. But I do not care. I can endure anything better than spending money for another load of coal—half of which (the big half) will be coke. Anyhow, other big expenses loom before me. My lawn-mower simply must be sharpened; I avoided having this done during the war years (to avoid taking several men from more vitally necessary jobs) and now a large machine shop has undertaken the work, on a cost-plus basis.
• FRIDAY •
Nothing happened to me today which was not routine; my life grows duller and duller. Sometimes I think that I should take up a hobby, but the problem always is, which one? I could breed budgerigars, but I’m not sufficiently interested in budgerigars. I could become an authority on the history of something-or-other, but that would be so much like my ordinary work, that it would not recreate me. I once worked up a small enthusiasm for wood-carving, but when I found that it meant investing $100 or so in chisels and gouges, and haunting lumber yards in search of fine pieces of Spanish mahogany and sandalwood my enthusiasm waned. The trouble is that I don’t really like doing anything; I just like to sit, and when I sit I become bored. It’s a vicious circle, and I suppose I am what the psychologists call maladjusted…. I once knew a man whose hobby was making jewellery. He had a few stones and a few chunks of gold and silver, and he made rings and brooches which he gave to his friends. They were so horrible that nobody would wear them, but that was his fulfilment. I also knew a chap who did rotten bookbinding; his system was to take a book you really liked, and bind it in suede leather which made your teeth grate. I finally got so I didn’t care whether he was fulfilled or not.
• SATURDAY •
Having averted my face from it for several weeks, I tackled the problem of Income Tax today. People of a mathematical turn of mind tell me that the forms are very simple if you attack them logically, but I am incapable of attacking an Income Tax form logically, or even coolly. Whatever my Better Self may say about citizenship and duty, my Worser Self remains convinced that it is a wicked shame that the government should take a big chunk of my earnings away from me, without so much as telling me what the money is to be used for. I know about the Baby Bonus, of course, but whose baby, specifically, am I bonussing with my money? Probably a damp, sour-smelling baby which I should hate if I met it face to face. Whose Old Age Pensions am I paying?7 Probably those of some lifelong prohibitionists, if the truth were known! People to whom I would not give a used paper handkerchief if I met them in the street are picking my pockets by means of this iniquitous Income Tax! The whole thing puts me into such a passion that I am incapable of adding and subtracting correctly. Clutching hands seem to snatch at me out of the paper until I scream and scream and scream.
• SUNDAY AND MAY DAY •
A man who spent part of the winter up in the Kapuskasing district told me that the best-dressed people in Canada live there. They haven’t much to spend their money on beside personal adornment, and they go in for rich and colourful raiment of a kind never seen in the city. Manufacturers prepare special lines of Babylonian parkas and Tyrian windbreakers for the northland which are unknown in the cities of Onta
rio, where men dress in gray and blue sacking and allow their wives to choose their ties for them. In the north, this man told me, the trappers and loggers are great patrons of the beauty shops, and like to have their hair and beards arranged in crinkly marcels. I was not surprised to hear this, for man in a natural state is a vainglorious creature; it is only when he puts on the shackles of civilization that he becomes colourless, shamefaced, and slinking…. May Day today, which I celebrated by organizing a dance round the May Pole for some children, after which I treated them to chunks of May Pole sugar, which is scarce this season.
• MONDAY •
Today at lunchtime I saw a girl’s hat blow off into the street; she was a pretty girl (well—fairly pretty—not fat, anyhow), nicely dressed, and her distress was pitiable to see. The hat was a small round gray felt gourd, and after rolling about in the dirt for a while, it came to rest under a parked car. With the alertness of an old campaigner in the Sex War, I at once took cover in a shop door, for I knew that that girl would immediately be on the lookout for a man to get her hat for her, and I had no mind to crawl on my ulcers in the street, under somebody else’s oily old jalopy. Sure enough, she had her victim within three minutes; simpering pathetically he fished out the hat, and his reward was a smile—not nearly enough in these days of trouser shortage…. But at five o’clock I saw a young workman lose his cap in the street, and what happened? His companions jeered coarsely, young women sniggered and sharpened their fingers at him, and a big fat capitalist in a blue car rode right over his hat just as he was snatching for it. This typical display of the inequalities under which men struggle in the modern world saddened me so much that I hardly had strength to resist a young Jehovah’s Witness who tried to sell me a magazine on my way home.
• TUESDAY •
My cold is not better; it is worse, and I am confronted by one of those vexing problems for which there is no wholly satisfactory solution. Shall I stay at home, and enjoy the delights of mild invalidism, or shall I do my day’s work, and enjoy the gloomy pleasures of martyrdom? … To lie in bed, cosseted with hot-water bags and flannel chest-warmers, supping gruel, syllabubs, and tansy tea—that is the ideal state on a vile, rainy, soggy day like this. But again, to snuffle at my work, to throw paper handkerchiefs into the waste basket in monotonous rhythm, to cough pitifully and roll my rheumy eyes toward Heaven whenever anyone reproaches me—this too, is bliss…. Then again a man with a cold is a privileged snarler; he can be as abrupt as he likes with his colleagues, and they are forced to believe that it is his illness which speaks through his lips, and not his habitual sweet spirit. Lying in bed, there is no one to snarl at, for if one snarls at one’s nurse she may retaliate with a mustard plaster—which is, of course, for one’s own good, and has nothing whatever to do with revenge…. I eventually decided in favour of work, and developed a cough which sounds like coal pouring down a chute.
• WEDNESDAY •
I listen to the radio a good deal these days, for my ears are enchanted by the wonders of the newscasts, though occasionally I shed a tear for the ignorance of the announcers. Today I heard Connecticut with the second “c” sounded—an inexcusable solecism, and yesterday I heard Count Bernadotte called “Bernadotty.” I am often told that radio announcers cannot be faultless; I know that, but I insist that they should speak like educated people and not like yahoos. After all, they are paid to talk, and if they cannot speak well they are bad workmen, and deserve criticism like other bad workmen. If man has conquered the air merely to fill it with bombs and illiteracy, we might as well discount this civilization, and try a new one.
• THURSDAY •
Word reached me today that I am shortly to possess a handsome kitten; I have been on the track of a kitten of just the right sort for quite a time. Immediately turn my attention to suitable names. Nicholas is a fine name for a cat, and so is Solomon. Dr. Johnson called his cat Hodge, which convinces me that it must have been a rustic, bumpkin cat, with a miaow like a creaking door. All sorts of famous men have been cat-lovers, but unfortunately they have not left a record of their cats’ names. I should like to call my cat Bubastis, after the Cat Goddess of ancient Egypt, but my neighbours are very conservative, and would give me oblique glances if I crept about my garden calling “Bubastis, Bubastis” in a high, soft, cat-attracting voice. Cardinal Richelieu gave his white cat seven names, after seven different Popes, but my motives might be misunderstood if I followed his example (not being a Cardinal). The ideal name eludes me, but I shall find it at last.
• FRIDAY •
To the bank today, and stood in a queue right behind a man who appeared to be paying off the National Debt in pennies; he and the clerk counted them all several times with intense concentration, and after a while I began to count them too, to combat my boredom…. When at last the Golden Boy moved away, and I confronted the wicket, I was intimidated to find that the young lady behind it was several inches taller than I was, and looked down at me as though she thought I had not come honestly by the few dirty bills which I poked at her through the bars. By the time my trifling business was finished, I was cringing pitifully before this goddess…. But when I went to another wicket to get my book, I saw the true state of affairs. She was really a little girl, about the size I am accustomed to dandle on my knee, and she was standing on a box! It is this sort of misrepresentation on the part of banks which drives simple people to socialism. In the socialist state everybody will have to keep his feet flat on the floor, his head in the clouds, his shoulder to the wheel, his back to the wall, his ear to the ground, and his nose to the grindstone. And short girls will be made to stand under tables at the banquets of state officials, and retrieve the dropped napkins of the gorging Parteigenossen.
• SATURDAY •
Kitten arrived today—a tortoiseshell inclining toward tiger stripes; its milk-name was “Tiger,” and it may stick unless I can think of something better. It is a female, so Nicholas and Solomon must be abandoned. Cats marked in this way reveal Chinese ancestry, so I am told, but so far Tiger has shown none of the much-advertised Chinese calm. She has climbed the curtains, skated on the lid of the piano and displayed an utterly anti-Confucian passion for fish scraps, bits of chicken, custard, junket, bread-and-milk and similar flesh-pots. A stickler for tradition, I wanted to butter her paws to accustom her to her new home, but the butter price will not permit it. Engaged in a lively discussion as to whether olive-oil was a permissible substitute. Made a punching-bag for Tiger out of a ball of paper and some string, and watched her box; kittens and babies are always able to reduce us to the last extreme of drooling fatuity; at last Tiger was settled for the night in a box containing an old sweater and a hot-water bottle, the latter being a substitute for her mother. I hope she doesn’t get a shock in the morning, when she finds her mother has turned cold, bald and a disagreeable shade of red.
• SUNDAY •
Went cheerfully through the whole day without realizing that the usual haphazard tinkering with the clocks was in progress, and that I should have been enjoying the benefits of Daylight Saving Time. I don’t really care how time is reckoned so long as there is some agreement about it, but I object to being told that I am saving daylight when my reason tells me that I am doing nothing of the kind. I even object to the implication that I am wasting something valuable if I stay in bed after the sun has risen. As an admirer of moonlight I resent the bossy insistence of those who want to reduce my time for enjoying it. At the back of the Daylight Saving scheme I detect the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier, to make them healthy, wealthy and wise in spite of themselves.8
• MONDAY •
An extremely attractive young woman of my acquaintance told me of an amatory adventure she had today. While at the grocer’s she noticed that she was an object of deep interest to a dark, passionate young man behind the counter. Wherever she went he followed her with a burning eye: his heavy breathin
g was audible at a considerable distance; when at last he caught her eye, he gave her a glance charged with 25,000 volts of tender meaning. As she is quite accustomed to these tributes she paid no attention and forgot about him entirely until her groceries were delivered. But then she found his name, address and telephone number, neatly written in black crayon on one of her bananas! The use of a banana as a billet doux would have interested the late Havelock Ellis. I suggested that the next time she should casually drop a lemon, as a sign that his suit is hopeless.
• TUESDAY •
As I sat outside the main dining room of the Royal York this evening, a large black dog appeared from nowhere and began to lick my hand, sit on my feet, wipe its nose on my trousers, and give other evidence of its esteem and regard. At the best of times I have a low opinion of Man’s Dumb Chum, and as I could see a headwaiter eyeing me balefully, as though about to call the hotel detective and the bouncer, I gave the creature a couple of sharp kicks in the slats and urged it to go elsewhere. But dogs love me just as inveterately as I hate them, and the creature took my abuse the way screen heroines take the soft cooings of Charles Boyer. This rattled me so much that I got up and moved to another chair, but the dog followed me, leaping up and down and wagging a tail like a wagon-tongue. Drastic action was called for, and so, with a Judas smile, I fed it a particularly ferocious coughdrop which I had in my pocket—a coughdrop of atomic strength9—and that did the trick. It gave me a look of reproach which would have done credit to Beautiful Joe, and rushed away howling. When I last saw it, it was trying to get a drink out of an ornamental spittoon which was, however, filled with sand.