A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

“She’s playing with that Pamela, and I suppose we’ll have to get an earful of what Pamela’s Mothaw’s been saying,” said Meg McCorkill, who had appeared in a very gay and brilliantly clean apron. “Hello dear, it’s certainly great to see you. Come on in.”

They bustled Monica into Beaver Lodge, which was a beautifully clean and bright little house — so clean and bright, indeed, that Monica was startled, for her eyes had become accustomed to the dinginess of Mrs Merry’s, the comfortable but seedy furnishings of Molloy’s teaching room, and the downright squalor of the Heber and Schlesinger quarters.

“Isn’t this lovely,” said Monica; “it’s like being at home!”

“Aw, you poor kiddie!” said Meg McCorkill. “Did you hear that, Lorne? Oh he’s gone to change out of his paint-clothes.” She raised her voice to a piercing shriek. “Lorne, didja hear what Monica just said? The minute she set foot in the door she said this was like home. How’s that, eh?”

Lorne returned; he was wearing moccasin slippers, and was struggling into a sweatshirt which had the name of a western Canadian university printed across its chest. “That’s swell,” he said; “just swell. That makes up for all the trouble it was to get this paint here. Because let me tell you kid,” said he, very emphatically, “every wall and piece of woodwork in this house is covered with real Canadian rubber-base paint. None of this English oil-base stuff for me. We brought it over, and fought it through Customs, and now it’s on, and at least we know it isn’t all going to shale off in wet weather. And that’s something you can certainly count on here, boy — wet weather. Now how’s about a real drink. Do you have yours straight, or on the rocks, or with water?”

Monica had been brought up in strict abhorrence of alcohol in all forms, but mixing with Peggy Stamper’s friends had taught her to drink beer, in very small quantities. Meg saw her hesitation.

“Make us a Canadian Lyric, Lornie,” said she. “Monica’s too young for straight hard liquor.”

They were in the kitchen, a gleaming room with a Canadian electric stove and a Canadian refrigerator in it; in a corner a Canadian washing-machine, with a round window in its middle, spied on them with this Cyclops eye. While Lorne worked with ice and bottles, Meg explained that they had imported these kitchen articles into England, because they could not possibly make do with the inferior local products. And what a trouble it had been! Everything electric had to be altered to accord with English notions of electrical current. And as for repairs — it was lucky that Lorne was able to turn his hand to pretty nearly anything — a real Canuck in that respect. God! cried Meg (who was very free with strong language, but did not seem to mean anything much by it) English women certainly put up with murder in their kitchens. Frankly, in their place, she’d just tell some of these English husbands where they got off at. But then, the poor mutts never knew anything better, so what was the use of telling them? They just seemed to be born sloppy. Their clothes! Had Monica ever seen anything like some of the comic Valentines you met just walking around the streets? In Medicine Hat — she and Lorne were both Westerners — they’d be taken in charge by the police.

By this time Lorne, with much shaking and measuring, had com­posed the Canadian Lyric, a cocktail made of equal parts of lemon juice and maple syrup, added to a double portion of rye whisky, and shaken up with cracked ice.

“The trouble we had getting real maple surrp!” said Lorne. “But I ran it down, finally, in a dump in Soho — a grocery that gets all kinds of outlandish stuff — and here it is, with that real old Canuck flavour! Boys-o-Boys! Just pour that over your tonsils and think of home! Say, where is Diane, anyway?”

Perhaps it was lucky for Diane that she made her appearance at this moment. She was a pretty little girl of about ten, with a fresh complexion.

“Sorry to be late, Mummy,” said she; “I was playing with Pam, and I forgot.”

“Hear that?” said Meg to Monica, as though expecting her to notice some serious symptom of disease in her child. “That’s what we’re up against, all the time. Of course, she hears it in school, and it’s sure tough to fight school. Now, Little Pal,” she said, directing her attention to Diane, “how often does Mom have to tell you to call her Mom, or even Mommie, but not that awful Mummy? Jeez, you make me sound like something in a museum.”

“Sorry, Mom,” said the child.

“I just can’t bear that awful mush-mouthed way they have of talking,” said Meg to Monica again. “If she takes that home, she’ll be a laughing-stock.”

Monica, not knowing what else to do, agreed.

As the evening progressed, she found herself agreeing to many other things, for in Beaver Lodge not to agree in any criticism of England was to be a traitor to Canada. Monica had never given much thought to Canada, as an entity, before; she was a Canadian, and if she had been challenged on the point she would have said that she was proud of it, but if the challenger had probed further, and asked her upon what foundations her pride rested, she would have been confused. But at Beaver Lodge there were no uncertainties: England was a compost-heap of follies, iniquities and ineptitudes. A great country — well, at one time, perhaps — but its greatness was passing. How could a country, where fish was offered for sale on marble slabs, perfectly open to dust and dirt, expect to hold a position of supremacy? The dirtiness of the English, in the eyes of Lorne and Meg, was their greatest crime.

Such conversation was apparently intended to lend savour to the meal, which consisted of tomato juice out of a can (they had their juices sent to them from Canada, every month) and real Western Canadian beef.

“You couldn’t touch the beef here,” said Lorne, as he carved. “It’d be criminal to feed it to Diane. This country, I tell you — their herds are riddled with TB.”

“What’s TB, Daddy?” asked Diane.

“It’s an awful disease you get from dirt, honey,” said Lorne. “You know how Daddy tells you to always hold your breath when you’re passing a drain in the road, and it’s steaming? The cows breathe dirt, and they get TB.”

Having eaten the safe beef, they had a banana-cream pie which was, in part, a traitor, for although the lard in the pastry was from Canada (as was the flour too, of course) the bananas were purchased in England, and were from the Canaries, and thus not the large plantains to which Canada is accustomed. The meal concluded with coffee, made in what Meg declared was “the real, old-fashioned Canadian way” in an electric percolator; it was very good coffee, and Monica was grateful for it.

She ventured to ask how it was that the McCorkills were able to get so much of their food from home?

“Lorne’s work makes it possible,” said Meg. “And if it didn’t I don’t know where we’d turn. He’s with the marketing board, you know, and we can make arrangements which probably wouldn’t work otherwise. And, frankly, if we couldn’t get most of our stuff from home, I’d kick right over the traces; I wouldn’t risk feeding Diane the stuff they have here. I’ve warned her not to accept food in the houses of any of the kiddies she plays with. It’s not an easy rule to enforce, but if a kiddy knows just what germs she may be taking into her system, she uses her head.”

It was when Diane had gone to bed that Meg confided one of her chief worries. “She was less than eight when we left home,” said she, jerking her head upward to indicate the child, “and more than two years is a long time for a kiddy. In spite of all we can do she’s just getting to talk like all the kids around here, and the other day she said, “Mommy, when are we going back to America?” America! Get it! Well, I just dropped everything, and I must have talked to her for fifteen minutes about home, and how she must always make it clear to the people here that there’s all the difference in the world between Canada and the US. But where do you suppose she picked up an expression like that? From her teacher, of course! Gosh, they don’t seem to be able to distinguish — I mean, you’d think they’d realize we were part of the Commonwealth, wouldn’t you? I mean, when we’re the granary of the world, and all through the war we were the Arsenal of Democracy, and everything?” Meg became almost tearful as she thought of this instance of British indifference to Canadian individuality.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson