A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

She was conscious of this pattern in her life, and attributed it to her indifferent health. Everything she ate, she declared, ran to fat. She was a burden to herself; her breath was short, and she suspected the worst of her heart. From time to time she made attempts to get her fat down, picking at her food for a few days until she was so low in spirits that she would have a fit of weeping, and take a medicinal slice of pie. A doctor had once told her that sugar was a stimulant, and indeed it was to her; she resorted to it as a wealthier and more sophisticated invalid might have taken to a costly drug.

Perhaps the most extraordinary manifestation of her depression was that while it lasted she refused to go to the services and prayer-meetings of the Thirteeners. Her faith was as strong as ever, she protested, but she couldn’t face the people; she simply wasn’t up to it. She could endure no one but her family, and toward them she was morose, demanding — in Alice’s word “cussed”. Pastor Beamis paid more sick-visits to her than to any other member of his flock.

The quantity and elaboration of the baking that had gone on before the farewell party made it clear that Mrs Gall was going on the razzle as never before. It had been estimated that there would be, at the outside, twenty guests, and she had made ten large jellies, four layer-cakes, a fruit-cake, six dozen tarts and unnumbered cookies; in addition she had baked a ham and a turkey, made a mountain of potato salad, and had rifled her preserve cupboard to produce mus­tard pickles, chili sauce, pickled beetroot, pickled watermelon rind, pickled crabapples, pickled corn and pickled onions. A vast coffee urn had been borrowed from the Thirteeners’ church, and in addition there was to be a punch, made of cold tea, grape juice and ginger ale, with extra sugar to make it fizz.

“I don’t want nobody goin’ home sayin; they didn’t get their bellyful,” she said, as she surveyed these provisions on the afternoon before the great event. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Monica wince, and Ma Gall was gratified. Although she could never have formulated such a theory, she had a deep conviction that there was something salty, honest and salutary about bad grammar; it checked a tendency in the girls to get stuck-up notions. She could speak as fancy as anybody when she chose, but she didn’t choose to indulge her daughters in this way. She deeply believed — though again this belief never jelled into anything so clear as a theory — that everybody, in their inmost thoughts, was ungrammatical, and that they translated those thoughts into fancy talk when they spoke, as a form of affectation. But they didn’t impose on her. No siree, Bob!

“What are they going to do — besides eat themselves out of shape?” asked her daughter Alice.

“Oh, they’ll find plenty to do. Somebody’ll know some games, or somethin’,” said Mrs Gall. “Why don’t you plan it, instead of leavin’ the whole thing to me?”

“What can we do that anybody wants to do that Mrs Beamis won’t pull a long face at?” said Alice.

“Alex and Kevin’ll have lotsa things planned, you’ll see,” said Mrs Gall. “They’re regular corkers, those two fellas. Laugh! — Say, will you ever forget the time they sneaked upstairs and got into a lot of your clothes and came down again like a couple of girls?” Mrs Gall laughed till she wheezed, turned a dirty red, and coughed deeply and ventriloquially, like a bull bellowing in a distant field.

“Yes, and they burst two of my dresses under the arms,” said Alice, sourly. “Big sissies. It was a thrill for them to get into a girl’s stuff and mess around with it.”

“Aw, they’re a great coupla boys,” said Mrs Gall. “They got some life in ’em, and that’s what I like. Not always pilin’ on the agony till they’re so stiff-rumped they can’t have any fun.” Again her eye wandered to Monica, who, as the supposed guest of honour, was showing little zeal for the party which lay ahead.

Night came, and with it the guests. Monica and Alice dressed in the small room which they had always shared, contriving somehow to make quite elaborate preparations in the two-foot gangway which was all the space left in the room between the double bed, the chest of drawers and the single chair. Alice depressed Monica by her unceas­ing gloomy predictions about the party. The elder of the two, Alice was the rebel; she was sick of the Thirteeners, and she was pretty sick of Ma. She was also sick of Monica, and the Bridgetower Trust had deepened her disgust with her sister’s pretensions to culture. Alice was noisily anti-intellectual, though she had no clear notion of what it was that she was opposing. She was convinced that music and all that stuff was a lot of bull, and that was all there was to the matter. She worked in a bank, and had plans to better herself. The first step in these plans, Chuck Proby by name, was coming to the party. He worked in the bank, too.

“Chuck says all this religion is a lot of crap,” said Alice, putting as much colour on her mouth as she thought Ma would endure without noisy rebuke.

“If Ma heard you use a word like that she’d wash your mouth out with soap,” said Monica, who was rubbing Italian Balm into her hands.

“Ma’s no one to talk about the words anybody else uses. Did you hear what she said when she finished laying the table tonight? ‘There; let ’em eat till they’re pukin’ sick’, that’s what she said. But the other day when I lost the heel off my shoe and said Damn she yelped about it for half an hour. No swearing — oh my, no! — but she’ll talk as common as she likes. But anyhow, Chuck says all this religion is a lot of crap. He says he’s a Probyite. He means by that he believes in himself. That’s what makes me so crazy about him. He’ll do something in the world. Not like Pa.”

“Pa’s never had a real chance, Alice. He started to work at sixteen –” Monica’s voice died away, for she was remembering what her aunt had told her, what George had said — all the disturbing things which gnawed at Pa’s meagre personal legend. Alice was laughing.

“Crap,” said she, “crapola!”


By nine o’clock the party was beginning to warm up. It had started badly, for the earliest guests to arrive were twelve young Thirteeners, the others in the sept of thirteen with which Monica, at puberty, had been received into the Beamis flock. They were evenly divided as to sex, and there were three couples among them who were supposed to be romantically interested in each other. But vitality did not seem to be a characteristic of young Thirteeners, and they were quiet, almost furtive, in their approach to merry-making. They hung about the walls, and said “Yes, thanks,” and “No, thanks,” when addressed, and showed a distressing tendency to whisper among themselves. Miss Ellen Gall had come early, but she was not one to make a party “go”, and thus the whole burden fell on Mrs Gall. She pumped up gusto enough for everybody, pressing the sweet punch and cookies on them as soon as they arrived, toiling round and round the room, sucking air through her false teeth, and shouting “Havin’ a good time? That’s right; enjoy yourselves!” in a way which made it clear that no lack of enjoyment would be tolerated. But the young Thirteeners were leavened after ten minutes by the arrival of Chuck Proby, who had a very worldly air, and then by Mrs Gall’s favourites, Alex Graham and Kevin Boyle.

Alex and Kevin were close friends. They shared a boarding-house and, frequently, they shared a bed. They were happy together, giving each other advice about clothes, and helping each other in the demanding task of setting their hair in becoming waves. Mrs Gall, it need hardly be said, knew nothing of these intimacies and failed to understand Alice’s broad hints; to her they were just a pair of vivacious boys who were always ready for fun, never spoke ill of anybody, and paid her flattering attentions. They were not Thirteeners, but they were pleasantly solemn about religion, and occasionally ventured philosophical reflections to the effect that there were a lot of things in the Universe that we didn’t understand yet, and that it stood to reason that there was Something at the back of the wonderful world which we saw all around us. In the circle in which the Galls moved, the subdivision of humankind to which Alex and Kevin belonged was not understood — and indeed, if its existence were recognized at all it was thought to appear only among people whom wealth or an unwholesome preoccupation with the arts had corrupted; true, they seemed a little girlish, but in Mrs Gall’s view there was nothing wrong with them that a couple of good wives couldn’t put right, and she was always on the lookout for suitable girls for them; she would have been well pleased if her own two daughters had fallen in with this plan. They were great ones to “josh” with her, and Mrs Gall could forgive anything in a josher. They made their entrance joshing.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson