Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

“Jeez the war’s made a difference in this little old burg. Unsettled. You know what I mean? Lots of changes. Two fires — bad ones — and Harry Henderson sold his store. But I guess I mean changes in people. Young kids in trouble a lot. And Jerry Cullen — you remember him? — sent to the penitentiary. His daughter squealed on him. Said he was always at her. She was just a kid, mind you. But the cream of it was, I don’t think Jerry ever really knew what he done wrong. I think he thought everybody was like that. He was always kinda stupid. About that kinda thing, though, I guess the worst was young Grace Izzard — maybe you don’t remember — she’s always called Harelip because she’s got this funny-looking lip. Well, she got to fourteen and got to guessing, I suppose, but who’d want her with a face like that? So she promises her kid brother Bobby, who’s about twelve, a quarter if he’ll do it to her, and he does but only if he gets ten cents first, and then, jeez, when he’s finished she only gives him another nickel because she says that’s all it’s worth! Isn’t that a corker, eh? These kids today, eh? And then –”

And then two bastards, a juicy self-induced abortion, several jiltings, an old maid gone foolish in menopause, and a goitre of such proportions as to make all previous local goitres seem like warts, which Dr. McCausland was treating in Bowles Corners. The prurient, the humiliating, and the macabre were Milo’s principal areas of enthusiasm, and we explored them all.

“The flu beat everything though. Spanish Influenza, they called it, but I always figured it was worked up by the Huns some ways. Jeez, this burg was like the Valley of the Shadda for weeks. Of course we felt it more than most in here; a barber always has everybody breathing on him, you see. The old man and me, we hung bags of assafoetida around our necks to give the germs a fight. But oh, people just dropped like flies. Like flies. McCausland worked twenty-four hours a day, I guess. Doc Staunton moved out to one of his farms to live and sort of gave up practice. But he’d been mostly a farmer in a big way for years. Rich man now. You remember Roy Janes and his wife, the Anglican minister? They never rested, going around to sick houses, and then both of ’em died themselves within forty-eight hours. The reeve put the town flag at half-mast that day, and everybody said he done right. And your Ma, Dunny — God, she was a wonderful woman! Never let up on nursing and taking soup and stuff around till your Dad went. You know he wouldn’t go to bed? Struggled on when he was sick. Of course you could tell. Blue lips. Yeah, just as blue as huckleberries. That was the sign. We give ’em forty-eight hours after that. Your Dad kept on with his lips as blue as a Sunday suit for a day, then he just fell beside the make-up stone, and Jumper Saul got him home on a dray. Your Ma lost heart and she was gone herself before the week was out. Fine folks. Next issue of the Banner, Jumper Saul and Nell turned the column rules, and the front page just looked like a big death notice. God, when I saw it I just started bawling like a kid. Couldn’t help myself. Do you know, in this little town of five hundred, and the district around, we lost ninety-eight, all told? But the worst was when Jumper turned the column rules. Everybody said he done right.

“You know ‘Masa Dempster went? ‘Course, he’d been no good for years. Not since his trouble, you remember? Sure you do! We used to see you skin over there after school and climb through the window to see her and Paul. Nobody ever thought there was any wrong going on, of course. We knew your Ma must have sent you. She couldn’t do anything for the Dempsters publicly, of course, but she sent you to look after them. Everybody knew it an’ honoured her for it. Do you remember how you said Mary Dempster raised Willie from the dead? God, you used to be a crazy kid, Dunny, but I guess the war knocked all that out of you. . .

“Miz Dempster? Oh no, she didn’t get the flu. That kind is always spared when better folks have to go. But after ‘Masa went she was a problem. No money, you see. So the reeve and Magistrate Mahaffey found out she had an aunt somewheres near Toronto. Weston, I believe it was. The aunt come and took her. The aunt had money. Husband made it in stoves, I heard.

“No, Paul didn’t go with her. Funny about him. Not ten yet, but he run away. He had a kind of a tough time at school, I guess. Couldn’t fight much, because he was so undersized, but kids used to get around him at recess and yell. ‘Hey, Paul, does your Ma wear any pants?’ and stuff like that. Just fun, you know. The way kids are. But he’d get mad and fight and get hurt, and they just tormented him more to see him do it. They’d yell across the street, ‘Hoor yuh today. Paul?’ Sly, you see, because he knew damn well they didn’t mean ‘How are you today, Paul?’ but ‘Your Ma’s a hoor.’ Kind of a pun, I guess you’d call it. So when the circus was here, autumn of ‘eighteen, he run away with one of the shows. Mahaffey tried to catch up with the circus, but he could never get nowheres with them. Tricky people. Funny, it was the best thing Paul ever done, in a way, because every kid wants to run away with a circus, and it made him kind of a hero after he’d gone. But Mary Dempster took it very bad and went clean off her head. Used to yell out the window at kids going to school, ‘Have you seen my son Paul?’ It would of been sad if we hadn’t of known she was crazy. And it was only two or three weeks after that ‘Masa got the flu and died. He certainly had a hard row to hoe. And inside a week the aunt come, and we haven’t seen hide nor hair of them since.”

By this time the haircut was finished, and Milo insisted on anointing me with every scent and tonic he had in the shop, and stifling me with talcum, as a personal tribute to my war record.

The next day was Sunday, and I made a much appreciated appearance in St. James’ Presbyterian Church. On Monday, after a short talk with the bank manager and the auctioneer, and a much longer and pleasanter talk with Jumper Saul and Nell, I boarded the train — there was no crowd at the station this time — and left Deptford in the flesh. It was not for a long time that I recognized that I never wholly left it in the spirit.


My Fool-Saint


In the autumn of 1919 I entered University College, in the University of Toronto, as an Honours student in history. I was not properly qualified, but five professors talked to me for an hour and decided to admit me under some special ruling invoked on behalf of a number of men who had been abroad fighting. This was the first time my boyhood stab at being a polymath did me any good; there was also the fact that it has been my luck to appear more literate than I really am, owing to a cadaverous and scowling cast of countenance and a rather pedantic Scots voice; and certainly my V.C. and general appearance of having bled for liberty did no harm. So there I was, and very pleased about it too.

I had sold the family house for $1200, and its contents, by auction, for an unexpected $600. I had even sold the Banner, to a job printer who thought he would like to publish a newspaper, for $750 down and a further $2750 on notes extending over four years; I was an innocent in business, and he was a deadbeat, so I never got all of it. Nevertheless, the hope of money to come was encouraging. I had quite a good pension for my disabilities, and the promise of wooden legs as I needed them, and of course my annual $50 that went with the V.C. I seemed to myself to be the lord of great means, and in a way it proved so, for when I got my B.A. after four years I was able to run to another year’s work for an M.A. I had always meant to get a Ph.D. at some later time, but I became interested in a branch of scholarship in which it was not relevant.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson