Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

I had lost all nerve long before. Now, as the last of the flare hissed towards me, I lost consciousness.


“May I have a drink of water?”

“Did you speak?”

“Yes. May I have a drink, Sister?”

“You may have a glass of champagne, if there is any. Who are you?”

“Ramsay, D., Sergeant, Second Canadian Division.”

“Well, Ramsay-Dee, it’s marvellous to have you with us.”

“Where is this?”

“You’ll find out. Where have you been?”

Ah, where had I been? I didn’t know then and I don’t know yet, but it was such a place as I had never known before. Years later, when for the first time I read Coleridge’s Kubla Khan and came on —

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread,

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise

— I almost jumped out of my skin, for the words so perfectly described my state before I woke up in hospital. I had been wonderfully at ease and healingly at peace; though from time to time voices spoke to me I was under no obligation to hear what they said or to make a reply; I felt that everything was good, that my spirit was wholly my own, and that though all was strange nothing was evil. From time to time the little Madonna appeared and looked at me with friendly concern before removing herself; once or twice she spoke, but I did not know what she said and did not need to know.

But here I was, apparently in bed, and a very pretty girl in a nurse’s uniform was asking me where I had been. Clearly she meant it as a joke. She thought she knew where I had been. That meant that the joke was on her, for no one, not I myself, knew that.

“Is this a base hospital?”

“Goodness, no. How do you feel, Ramsay-Dee?”

“Fine. What day is this?”

“This is the twelfth of May. I’ll get you a drink.”

She disappeared, and I took a few soundings. It was not easy work. The last time I had been conscious of was November; if this was May I had been in that splendid, carefree world for quite a while. I wasn’t in such a bad place now; I couldn’t move my head very much, but I could see a marvellously decorated plaster ceiling, and such walls as lay in my vision were panelled in wood; there was an open window somewhere, and sweet air — no stink of mud or explosive or corpses or latrines — was blowing through it. I was clean. I wriggled appreciatively — and wished I hadn’t, for several parts of me protested. But here was the girl again, and with a red-faced man in a long white coat.

He seemed greatly elated, especially when I was able to remember my Army number, and though I did not learn why at once I found out over a few days that I was by way of being a medical pet, and my recovery proved something; being merely the patient, I was never given the full details, but I believe I was written up in at least two medical papers as a psychiatric curiosity, but as I was referred to only as “the patient” I could never identify myself for sure. The red-faced man was some sort of specialist in shell-shock cases, and I was one of his successes, though I rather think I cured myself, or the little Madonna cured me, or some agencies other than good nursing and medical observation.

Oh, I was a lucky man! Apparently the flare did hit me, and before it expired it burned off a good part of my clothes and consumed the string of my identification disks, so that when I was picked up they were lost in the mud. There had been some doubt as to whether I was dead or merely on the way to it, but I was taken back to our base, and as I stubbornly did not die I was removed eventually to a hospital in France, and as I still refused either to die or live I was shipped to England; by this time I was a fairly interesting instance of survival against all probabilities, and the red-faced doctor had claimed me for his own; I was brought to this special hospital in a fine old house in Buckinghamshire, and had lain unconscious, and likely to remain so, though the red-faced doctor stubbornly insisted that some day I would wake up and tell him something of value. So here it was May, and I was awake, and the hospital staff were delighted, and made a great pet of me.

They had other news for me, not so good. My burns had been severe, and in those days they were not so clever with burns as they are now, so that quite a lot of the skin on my chest and left side was an angry-looking mess, rather like lumpy sealing wax, and is so still, though it is a little browner now. In the bed, on the left side, was an arrangement of wire, like a bee-skip, to keep the sheets from touching the stump where my left leg had been. While my wits were off on that paradisal holiday I had been fed liquids, and so I was very thin and weak. What is more, I had a full beard, and the pretty nurse and I had a rare old time getting it off.

Let me stop calling her the pretty nurse. Her name was Diana Marfleet, and she was one of those volunteers who got a proper nursing training but never acquired the full calm of a professional nursing sister. She was the first English girl I ever saw at close range, and a fine specimen of her type, which was the fair-skinned, dark-haired, brown-eyed type. Not only was she pretty, she had charm and an easy manner and talked amusingly, for she came of that class of English person who thinks it bad manners to be factual and serious. She was twenty-four, which gave her an edge of four years over me, and it was not long before she confided to me that her fiance, a Navy lieutenant, had been lost when the Aboukir was torpedoed in the very early days of the war. We were on tremendous terms in no time, for she had been nursing me since I had come to the hospital in January, and such nourishment as I had taken had been spooned and poured into me by her; she had also washed me and attended to the bedpan and the urinal, and continued to do so; a girl who can do that without being facetious or making a man feel self-conscious is no ordinary creature. Diana was a wonderful girl, and I am sure I gained strength and made physical progress at an unusual rate, to please her.

One day she appeared at my bedside with a look of great seriousness and saluted me smartly.

“What’s that for?”

“Tribute of humble nursing sister to hero of Passchendaele.”

“Get away!” (This was a great expression of my father’s, and I have never wholly abandoned it.)

“Fact. What do you think you’ve got?”

“I rather think I’ve got you.”

“No cheek. We’ve been tracing you, Sergeant Ramsay. Did you know that you were officially dead?”

“Dead! Me?”

“You. That’s why your V.C. was awarded posthumously.”

“Get away!”

“Fact. You have the V.C. for, with the uttermost gallantry and disregard of all but duty, clearing out a machine-gun nest and thereby ensuring an advance of I don’t know how far but quite a bit. You were the only one of the six who didn’t get back to the line, and one of the men saw you — your unmistakable size anyhow –running right towards the machine-gun nest; so it was clear enough, even though they couldn’t find your body afterward. Anyway you’ve got it, and Dr. Houneen is making sure you do get it and it isn’t sent home to depress your mother.”

The other three men in the room gave a cheer — an ironic cheer. We all pretended we didn’t care about decorations, but I never heard of anybody turning one down.

Diana was very sorry in a few days that she had said what she did about the medal going home to my mother, for a letter arrived from the Reverend Donald Phelps, in reply to one Dr. Houneen had sent to my parents, saying that Alexander Ramsay and his wife, Fiona Dunstable Ramsay, had both died in the influenza epidemic of early 1918, though not before they had received news of my presumed death at Passchendaele.

Diana was ashamed because she thought she might have hurt my feelings. I was ashamed because I felt the loss so little.


It was years before I thought of the death of my parents as anything other than a relief; in my thirties I was able to see them as real people, who had done the best they could in the lives fate had given them. But as I lay in that hospital I was glad that I did not have to be my mother’s own dear laddie any longer, or ever attempt to explain to her what war was, or warp my nature to suit her confident demands. I knew she had eaten my father, and I was glad I did not have to fight any longer to keep her from eating me. Oh, these good, ignorant, confident women! How one grows to hate them! I was mean-spiritedly pleased that my mother had not lived to hear of my V.C.; how she would have paraded in mock-modesty as the mother of a hero, the very womb and matrix of bravery, in consequence of my three years of degradation in the Flanders mud!

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Categories: Davies, Robertson