Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

Here we come to a point where I have to make an admission that will put me in a bad light, considering the story I have to tell. Boy was very good about passing on information to me about investment, and now and then I ventured two or three hundred from my small store, always with heartening results. Indeed, during my university days I laid the foundation for the modest but pleasant fortune I have now. What Boy did in thousands I did in hundreds, and without his guidance I would have been powerless, for investment was not in my line; I knew just enough to follow his advice — when to buy and when to sell, and especially when to hang on. Why he did this for me I can only explain on the grounds that he must have liked me. But it was a kind of liking, as I hope will be clear before we have finished, that was not easy to bear.

We were both young, neither yet fully come to himself, and whatever he may have felt for me, I knew that in several ways I was jealous of him. He had something to give — his advice about how to turn my few hundreds into a few thousands — and I make no apology for benefiting from the advice of a man I sneered at in my mind; I was too much a Scot to let a dollar get away from me if it came within my clutch. I am not seeking to posture as a hero in this memoir. Later, when I had something to give and could have helped him, he did not want it. You see how it was: to him the reality of life lay in external things, whereas for me the only reality was of the spirit — of the mind, as I then thought, not having understood yet what a cruel joker and mean master the intellect can be. So if you choose to see me as a false friend, exploiting a frank and talented youth, go ahead. I can but hope that before my story is all told you will see things otherwise.

We met about once every two weeks, by appointment, for our social lives never intersected. Why would they, especially after Boy bought his car, a very smart affair coloured a rich shade of auburn. He belled around to all the dancing places with men of his own stamp and the girls they liked, drinking a good deal out of flasks and making lots of noise.

I remember seeing him at a rugby game in the autumn of 1923; it was not a year since the Earl of Carnarvon had discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen, and already the gentlemen’s outfitters had worked up a line of Egyptian fashions. Boy wore a gorgeous pullover of brownish-red, around which marched processions of little Egyptians, copied from the tomb pictures; he had on the baggiest of Oxford bags, smoked the apple-bowl pipe with casual style, and his demeanour was that of one of the lords of creation. A pretty girl with shingled hair and rolled stockings that allowed you to see delightful flashes of her bare knees was with him, and they were taking alternate pulls at a very large flask that contained, I am sure, something intoxicating but not positively toxic from the stock of the best boolegger in town. He was the quintessence of the Jazz Age, a Scott Fitzgerald character. It was characteristic of Boy throughout his life that he was always the quintessence of something that somebody else had recognized and defined.

I was filled with a sour scorn that I now know was nothing but envy, but then I mistook it for philosophy. I didn’t really want the clothes, I didn’t really want the girl or the booze, but it scalded me to see him enjoying them, and I hobbled away grumbling to myself like Diogenes. I recognize now that my limp was always worse when I envied Boy; I suppose that without knowing it I exaggerated my disability so that people would notice and say, “That must be a returned man.” God, youth is a terrible time! So much feeling and so little notion of how to handle it!

When we met we usually ended up talking about Leola. It had been agreed by Boy’s parents and the Cruikshanks that she should wait until Boy had qualified as a lawyer before they married. There had been some suggestion from Leola that she might train as a nurse in the meanwhile, but it came to nothing because her parents thought the training would coarsen their darling — bedpans and urinals and washing naked men and all that sort of thing. So she hung around Deptford, surrounded by the haze of sanctity that was supposed to envelop an engaged girl, waiting for Boy’s occasional weekend visits in the auburn car. I knew from his confidences that they went in for what the euphemism of the day called “heavy petting” — mutual masturbation would be the bleak term for it — but that Leola had principles and they never went farther, so that in a technical, physical sense — though certainly not in spirit — she remained a virgin.

Boy, however, had acquired tastes in the Army that could not be satisfied by agonizingly prolonged and inadequately requited puffings and snortings in a parked car, but he had no clarity of mind that would ease him of guilt when he deceived Leola — as he did, with variety and regularity among the free-spirited girls he met in Toronto. He built up a gimcrack metaphysical structure to help him out of his difficulty and appealed to me to set the seal of university wisdom on it.

These gay girls, he explained, “knew what they were doing,” and thus he had no moral responsibility towards them. Some of them were experts in what were then called French kisses or soul kisses, which the irreverent called “swapping spits”. Though he might “fall” for one of them for a few weeks — even go so far as to have a “pash” for her — he was not “in love” with her, as he was with Leola. I had made this fine philsophical distinction myself in my dealings with Diana, and it startled me to hear it from Boy’s lips; noodle that I was, I had supposed this sophistry was my own invention. So long as he truly and abidingly loved none but Leola, these “pashes” did not count, did they? Or did I think they did? Above all things he wanted to be perfectly fair to Leola, who was so sweet that she had never once asked him if he was tempted to fall for any of the girls he went dancing with in the city.

I would have given much for the strength of mind to tell him I had no opinions on such matters, but I could not resist the bittersweet, prurient pleasure of listening. I knew it gave him a pleasure that he probably did not yet acknowledge to himself, to confront me with his possession of Leola. He had wormed it out of her that she had once thought she loved me, and he assured me that all three of us now regarded this as a passing aberration — mere war-fever. I did not deny it, but neither did I like it.

I did not want her, but it annoyed me that Boy had her. I had not only learned about physical love in splendid guise from Diana; I had also acquired from her an idea of a woman as a delightful creature that walked and talked and laughed and joked and thought and understood, which quite outsoared anything in Leola’s modest repertoire of charms. Nevertheless — egotistical dog in the manger that I was — I keenly resented the fact that she had thrown me over for Boy and had not had the courage to write and tell me so. I see now that it was beyond Leola’s abilities to put anything really important on paper; however much she may have wanted to do so, she could not have found words for what she ought to have said. But at that time, with her parents holding her, as it were, in erotic escrow for Boy Staunton, I was sour about the whole business.

Why did I not find some other girl? Diana, Headmaster, Diana. I often yearned for her, but never to the point where I wrote to ask if we might not reconsider. I knew that Diana would stand in the way of the kind of life I wanted to live and that she would not be content with anything less than a full and, if possible, a controlling share in the life of any man she married. But that did not stop me, often and painfully, from wanting her.

A selfish, envious, cankered wretch, wasn’t I?

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Categories: Davies, Robertson