Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

Bespoke tailor desires employment. Eighteen years experience as cutter and fitter. London (Eng.) training. Letters to Box 7, this journal.

“What’s a bespoke tailor, Rhod? Are those pants you’re wear­ing real London bespoke pants? Do they wear patches on the knees in London now, Rhod?” What I went through with the Courier gang! Not bad men — though Beak Browder and Charlie Delaney were not much above the criminal class — but men from another world. Not the world I grew up in. So far as I’d grown up. Fifteen, and raw off the boat. . . . That ad was the nearest thing to a lie I suppose the Pater ever allowed himself. He was never a real tailor, and his London training didn’t go beyond a few wrinkles Uncle David showed him, from time to time. But he had to have a job, and as a failed man I suppose he thought he had to go right back to the beginning, and that was the tailor’s bench. Pitiful. But could I say so? To my own father? Unthinkable. . . . I’ve helped quite a few immigrants in my time. I know what they feel. The desolation of leaving home and facing the worst — the bottom — of a new country. . . . Can I ever forget the first day at the Courier? Lance and I arrived on a Saturday, late in the afternoon, and Uncle John said he had jobs for us and we started Monday morning. I was scared out of my life. There I was, a printer’s devil, and I’d never seen the inside of a print­ing office in my life. Delaney was first: “Get the lye bucket and scrub out the urinals.” That was the way with a new apprentice. Give him the rottenest job first, to humble him. As if I needed humbling! The lye skinned my hands, and the stink made me vomit. Printers. Great beer-drinkers. Stinking piss. Then it was, “Get over to the market and get us some fruit for dinner.” “What fruit, sir?” “Any fruit, you stupid little bugger.” “May I have some money, sir? For the fruit, sir?” “Do you think we pay for fruit? Grab what you can, and run. And if you’re caught, don’t say you’re from here, or I’ll beat your brains out.” So I stole, and it nearly killed me. A thief! Had I come to this? If Hell is any worse than that first week at the Courier I’ll be surprised. Not just the cursing and filthy language and the perpetual dirty jokes about women, and the tobacco-chewing and the reek of men who never seemed to wash, but what they used to call in the Chapel the Abjection of Soul, the fear that God had deserted me. That’s when I learned that God has two faces. I’d exchanged the Wesleyan chapel for a chapel of the Typographical Union. . . . That was my Canada. That was the vast wheatfield and the sturdy farmer in elegant breeches. Lance and I lived with Uncle John and Auntie Polly. And every week we gave them most of our wages to put aside to buy furniture for the house when the Mater and the Pater and the two girls followed us out to the new land more than a year later. And when the day was near and we asked Uncle John for the money, what did he say? “Don’t trouble about it, boys, I’ll make it right with your father.” And that was all we ever heard about it. He’d used our money, the damned old scoundrel. — Ah, well; not a bad old stick. Just untrustworthy about money. When we told the Pater, he looked pretty sad, but he never said a word of blame to John Jethro. Uncle John was the Mater’s brother and he couldn’t bear to grieve her. I’ve never mentioned that to a soul. Not even to Vina. To cheat a couple of boys — how could he? And in other ways he was so much above the rest of us. Educated beyond us. But education never seems to have much to do with money matters. Nor with common sense . . . Look at Brocky. A really intelligent fellow, you would imagine. Certainly Jimmy King says so. But he seems ready to sacrifice it all for that damned Julia. What does he see in her? Stupid question. What does anybody ever see in some­one else’s love affairs? But is it love? Looks like rank infatua­tion. He’s a slave. Thinks I don’t know it, but I do. Perhaps because I’ve been a slave a couple of times myself. Perhaps that kind of slavery runs in the family. Do we overvalue women? Perhaps it would be different if there weren’t mad­ness in Julia’s family, but there is. The mother. The old grand­father. They’re not locked up, but above a certain level of income we don’t lock such people up. They’re not crazy, they’re neurotics. Until they burn the house down, or threaten somebody with a knife, that’s to say. Like William McOmish. There was a nice neurotic for you! And I suppose I have to understand that Brocky is his grandson, as well as the Pater’s. There’s a strain — Do I see it in Vina? No, no; that’s ridiculous. There never was a more level-headed woman when we were young. Now, of course, things have changed. She has so much illness to bear, poor woman, and illness eats into the mind as well as into the body. Not neurotic, but has too much to bear. . . . Is Brocky leading an immoral life? Has he gone the limit with that girl? That can be a frightful trap, and the man isn’t always to blame. It’s horribly coarsening. Does he take any precautions? Ought I to speak to him? He’d probably laugh at me. If the woman drinks a glass of really cold water right after — that does the trick. That’s what Vina and I have always done. Birth control. . . . If only she didn’t hate the Old Country so. Every year I want her to come with me to Belem. But after the first few years she has always said it’s too much for her. And I know she doesn’t want me to go. But I do go, and I live there by myself — unless I take Brocky with me — and I swear it saves my life. It’s peace and happiness and a blessed rest from perpetual illness and from old Min. . . . Min. There’s that in the family, too. Min lacks a round of being square, and that’s all there is to it. She thinks I didn’t see her at dinner last night, in one of her fits, one hand scrabbling in the mustard pickles. Oh, what a heritage Brocky has — asthma, on both sides. Petit mal likely to be grand mal at any time. Failure. Bankruptcy. Disappointment and bitterness of heart. That terrible thing about Vina. — That won’t do! Back to Wodehouse.

What do the Yanks know of England?

No, not England. Not even the Never-Never Land of Wode­house. The Old Country. The Country That Never Was. What does that poem call it? The Land of Lost Content. . . . What was it, come to that? Not all lavender. Don’t you think it was. The fish and the corduroy trousis. The dirty stories of the tailors, which I wasn’t supposed to hear. Nasty Bowen, who hung around the Lion Yard and would drink a cup of his piss for a penny. And many a penny he had, from boys like me who wanted to see if it would kill him, as it was supposed to do. Fred ffrench and I clubbed together a ha’penny each, for a try. And we made sure it was the right thing, and not some beer he’d substituted on the sly. Did Nasty drop dead? Not he. Lived to drink again. Liz Duckett and Jack the Jockey — I knew something about them, sure enough. Sin, but they seemed to thrive on it. Poor old Liz. The Pater used to send her money he could ill afford, every month, because she’d been faithful when we were down on our luck. I took that over, as soon as I could afford it. Till she died. Lance would never send her a penny. Lance became hard. Or maybe just sensible. I never help the weak, he said, when I put it up to him. Hard. But there’s good sense in it, too. No amount of help can make the weak strong. A good heart, old Liz. Died of syphilis, I suppose, as anybody might have foreseen. But even syphilitics know what it is to be hungry. . . . Struggle, struggle, struggle. That’s what it’s been. Brocky laughs when I say so. You must have had some fun somewhere along the way, he says. But I emphasize the struggle with him. He’s had an easy passage, so far. Education. Mind you, he seems to take to it. I can’t say I ever did, though I’ve picked up a few things here and there on my way. I’m surprised sometimes how much I know that people with far better chances than I ever had don’t know. Poetry. Always liked it, though Brocky says I have a sweet tooth. A Shropshire Lad. Yes, I find myself in a lot of that, though I was a next-door Montgomeryshire lad. The other side of the Wrekin. Yes and the Breidden, too.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson