The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks. Revised Edition (1966) by Robertson Davies

– XLIV –

Sunday: To the zoo this afternoon, just to see how the animals liked the cold weather. The bear looked restless and banged his cage resoundingly from time to time; the racoon and the skunk had retired for the winter; the foxes looked as though the cement floor gave them cold feet. But the ducks were very hearty, and nipped at the toes of my boots in a spirited manner; a duck nipping at one’s boot is a good joke, but a duck nipping at one’s nether regions when one is in a bathing suit is something entirely different. The pheasants were moulting — a process which is chronic with them, though the Ringneck Cock was in his finest plumage and a glorious sight. Two owls had been added to the collection, and were resenting it; I know of no animal which has a capacity for dignified outrage equal to that of an owl.

Monday: A correspondence school has written to me, inviting me to take a course in writing; this is a type of criticism which I resent. “You do not have to be a genius to become a successful writer,” they say, in what is meant to be a reassuring manner. Then they go on to urge me to look in my own neighbourhood for subjects. “Dig below the surface of your home town,” they say; frankly I am afraid that this method would not win me “a big income and interesting friends,” as they promise, but merely a pack of lawsuits. . . People who have taken the course write eagerly, “Last week I hit The Country Gentleman; this week I hit Mademoiselle; next week I hope to hit the American Mother!” Frankly I don’t think this course would suit me; I don’t want to hit any of those people, though I might toss a pie at the American Mother, just for fun. . . But I like the promise the people make that they will teach me how to create tense moments, and how to play on the heartstrings; I have never been any good at either of those things. And I particularly like their offer to teach me how to be funny; any school which can make a man funny by correspondence must possess a secret which has been hidden from the rest of mankind for some thousands of generations. It would be nice to be unfailingly, perpetually, remorselessly funny, day in and day out, year in and year out until somebody murdered you, now wouldn’t it?

Tuesday: Walked home this evening in the dusk, and passed a surprising number of couples of High School age conversing in low, tense voices as they leaned over bicycles or huddled under trees. Poets insist that Spring is the time of mating, but personal observation convinces me that the austere, bright nights of late Autumn are equally favourable to romance. The interesting thing about these lovers’ conversations are the pauses. The lad asks some question which (to my ears, at least) has no amorous significance, and the girl then casts down her eyes, fingers her Latin Grammar in an agitated manner, and after a breathless interval (during which I try to keep on walking without getting out of earshot) replies. “Oh, I guess so,” or “Oh, I just as leave,” causing her swain to breathe hard and gulp. . . Why doesn’t he throw himself on the ground, saying, “You are my Soul, my Better Self, be mine or I stab myself with this pair of protractors”; then she could reply, “Nay, press me not, I am Another’s.” In that way they could really have some romantic fun and store up things to tell their grandchildren. No style, no breadth, that’s the trouble with the modern High School set.

Wednesday: An unseasonable warm spell forces me to reverse my tactics with my furnace; instead of begging the thing to give me a little heat, I am now imploring it to relax its efforts. Perverse as always, it huffs and puffs and frizzles me with its breath. . . However, I have got a load of wood, with not more than a fair amount of soft stuff, punk and limbs in it, and I shall conduct Marchbanks’ Annual Wood Bee on Saturday. Hard cider and doughnuts will be served to all helpers.

Thursday: Was talking to a woman who has just had a baby, and who passed her period of recovery in a public ward in a Great Canadian City. There were nine other women in the room with her, and she said that they talked all the time — mostly about names for babies and the peculiar behaviour of their husbands. When these husbands came visiting one piece of dialogue was invariable:

HUSBAND: “Do you want anything to read?”

WIFE: (patting her bedside table) “No, no; I have MY BOOK.

. . . My informant was burned up with curiosity to know what these books were which were spoken of in such a portentous manner; she was able to discover that in all nine cases the “book” was a magazine of true love stories, or of confessions. This is an interesting sidelight on Canadian reading habits. Furthermore, she said that she never saw one of her nine companions open her “book” upon any occasion. . . My informant read several books during her recovery, to the amazement and ill-concealed indignation of her room-mates. It was their opinion that too much reading was a sign of being stuck-up, and furthermore liable to harm the baby’s eyes — by sympathetic magic, I suppose.

Friday: My brother Fairchild is my guest today, and as there is always something of an unusual nature going on in Fairchild’s vicinity, I kept a close watch on him, and soon surprised him in the act of shaving himself with a little electric machine which he kept in a leather case. It was, he said, a razor, and not a miniature sheep-shearer, as I thought; held close to the face, it chewed the whiskers off with tiny teeth; he passed it over the rugosities of his countenance with a great air of virtuosity, and I must admit that the little machine seemed to work. I asked him if it did not excite his face too much to have electricity applied to it? Was there no tendency for the skin to loosen and hang in folds? He denied this with more heat than was really necessary, for my question was purely academic. Later I crept off to the bathroom and cut myself with a razor I have used for years; I have a fear of new-fangled contrivances. Fairchild is the daring member of the family.

Saturday: This afternoon hove wood into my cellar and piled it; the heaving was a wild, brutal ecstasy, but the piling was a weary penance. It was necessary for me to grab up as much wood as I could hold, and scuttle under the rafters and furnace-pipes in a crouching position, rather as an ape rushes through the forest with a stolen bunch of bananas. After an hour or two of this my back began to hurt, and my philosophy took a violent turn toward pessimism. It was at this time also that my woodpile began to slip and slide, and drop on my feet. After some very delicate engineering, I got it to stay in place, and decided not to tempt fate by putting any more on it, so I retired to an upstairs room and settled down with a book and a foaming glass of burdock blood-bitters. . . During the night a mouse tramped rather heavily on the cellar floor, and I heard a thunderous roll as my woodpile sank into ruin.

– XLV –

Sunday: Woke with an aching head and a vile taste in my mouth — the consequence of piling wood yesterday; the pursuit of pleasure always leaves me in splendid condition (a fact which puzzles and irritates the Moral Element among my friends) but hard work gives me the most intolerable hangovers. Obviously Nature is evolving a new type of man, geared for a life of pleasure, and I am the first model. . . But on the principle of “a hair of the dog” I went out and heaved and piled the rest of my wood, having reconstructed the woodpile which fell down yesterday. By the time I was finished, I was on the verge of physical and mental breakdown. Though thousands of people indulge themselves in it regularly, and even develop a taste for it, there is no doubt in my mind (and that of scientists whom I employ to prove it) that Work is a dangerous and destructive drug, and should be called by its right name, which is Fatigue.

Monday: Attended a concert in a collegiate auditorium tonight, and sat in the front row in order to have room for my legs; in the ordinary concert-hall seat (designed by and for dwarfs) I have to sit side-saddle, while numbness seizes first one haunch and then the other. But being in the front row I had a fine view of the empty orchestra pit, and during a rowdy rendition of Chopin’s Scherzo in B Minor a tiny mouse crept from under the piano in the pit and began to dance, lightly, elegantly and charmingly. When the music twiddled, the mouse twiddled; when the music bounced, the mouse bounced; there was no arabesque of sound which the mouse was not able to transmute into an arabesque of movement. When it was all over I applauded the mouse vigorously, assuming that it was a protegé of the Board of Education. I learned later, however, that the concert committee had been put out by the fact that the mouse got in, somehow, without a ticket. . . Why are school mice always so fat and sleek? Is it because they have access to unlimited floor-oil?

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