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The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks Part 5

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Saturday: Visited a friend this evening who had procured a bottle of a very special tonic called Noilly Prat; in the interest of temperance, we experimented to see how much of the tonic it was necessary to put with a jigger of gin in order to kill the horrid taste. After several tries we got the measurements exactly right. . . Driving home, passed through a small town where Saturday Night was in full swing. Farmers shouted conversation from buggy to buggy; their wives stood in the general store, gossiping and criticizing the goods; girls walked up and down the street, arm in arm, pretending not to notice the young men who leaned on door-posts, haw-hawing and passing remarks. It was all rather idyllic and rural, and reminded me of my far-off youth in Skunk's Misery, before I was tarnished by the fetid breath of city life. I suppose everybody has these soft-headed spells, when they think it would be fun to live in a small town. They pass quickly, of course.

- L -.

Sunday: A man was lecturing me on the benefits of deep breathing this evening. "Fresh air cleanses the bloodstream and keeps the mind alert," he said, sucking in deep draughts of cigar smoke which undoubtedly polluted his bloodstream and fogged his brain. "When you've got pneumonia -- gasping for breath -- you pay a pretty penny for oxygen out of a tank; but all day, every day, the precious stuff is everywhere around you, begging to be breathed, and do you breathe it?" He puffed in my face, ferociously. "No, you don't. You're a shallow breather, a thorax-man, like millions of others. Well, don't say I didn't tell you." I promised that I would never say he didn't tell me, and felt rather guilty about the whole matter. Walking home, I breathed as deeply as I could for several blocks. It made me dizzy. I am a poor creature unworthy of the fresh air which Providence has lavished upon me.

Monday: My brother Fairchild has been having rather a difficult time with magic. Hoping to ingratiate himself with his children, he bought them some magic tricks, with which he thought that they might mystify their little friends. Having made this false step, he was soon involved in the appalling task of teaching the children to perform the tricks. Teaching a child to do even the simplest sleight-of-hand is like teaching a hippopotamus to embroider pillow-slips. The result of the whole mad scheme was tears, bad temper, and frustration for Fairchild. . . I sympathize with him. Once, in the bleak past, I cherished a desire to be a magician; I would have been quite content if I could have achieved the modest skill of, say, Thurston or Blackstone. I laboured before a mirror with coins, cards, eggs, handkerchiefs and billiard balls for weeks, my arms aching, until one bitter day when I came to my senses and admitted that nothing short of psycho-analysis and blood transfusions could make a conjuror of me. For the same reasons that I cannot carpenter shelves, fix leaky taps or tend a furnace, I was unable to pluck fifty quarters out of the air or pull a rabbit out of a hat.

Tuesday: Passed a bank this evening which was being re-modelled. Workmen were taking down the iron cages in which the tellers used to be kept. If anything marks the decline of belief in private property, it is this. Not so long ago, putting a teller into his cage was a solemn ceremony; the manager locked him in, and there he stayed until the manager let him out; while he was in the cage he spoke in a hushed voice, like a man who had swallowed a bomb, and he handled money with a kind of religious awe. In some English banks he did not even touch the money: he pushed it around with a brass scoop. Whenever he was handed a cheque, he held it up to the light, crackled it at his left ear, and sniffed at it before he cashed it. And when he was let out of the cage he had to strip before the manager, and prove that he had not secreted any doubloons about his person. But the modern teller is a carefree soul, able to run all over the bank if he likes, and ready to hobnob with Tom, Dick and Harry. It is all part of the breakdown of the monetary system.



Wednesday: Two different manifestations of the same attitude toward women forced themselves on my notice this afternoon. On the street I passed a young couple just as the boy wrenched the girl toward him by the shoulder. "Aw, yuh little nincompoop, yuh!" he said, as he gave her a shake; she replied with a spirited, but uncultured, reflection on his legitimacy. Five minutes later I opened a magazine at a luridly coloured advertisement for perfume. In it another young man, in evening dress, was gazing at the shoulder of his female companion with glowing eyes, like a vegetarian about to bite into an onion; his hands hovered in the air behind her, as though he might suddenly snatch her, just as the boy in the street had snatched. The caption of the picture was "Potent Essence of Desire to Touch". . . I shall never understand life, but I suppose the lesson of this is that if young men do not grab you and call you a little nincompoop, you need a perfume which will force them to do so. The girl in the advertisement was cool, exquisite and beautiful; the girl in the street was tousled, and had been barking her shins on rocking-chairs for weeks, I should judge. But both of them, apparently, were able to rouse men to wild flights of shoulder-madness.

Thursday: Heard a lady greeting her physician this afternoon. . . "Well, doctor," she said, breezily, "I hope you've been keeping well?" He gulped a couple of times and staggered a little, but his presence of mind did not desert him, for he immediately turned the conversation to a less ticklish subject. Of course it is terribly bad form to ask a doctor how he feels; it is almost the same thing as giving him a dig with a surgical scalpel, or telling him that he would not puff so much if he got more exercise. Doctors like to give the impression that they have no fluctuations of health, and are always in the absolute pink of condition. Nevertheless, in spite of the bad manners it would show, I should love to put a doctor on the spot about his health. "Let me see your tongue," I should like to say; "Oh, dear me, doctor, how did you ever let your tongue get in that frightful condition? Have you been licking the carpet with it? How's the pulse? Good heavens, it feels like a boogie-woogie bass! Take off all your clothes and lie down on this cold leather couch while I hit you all over with this little hammer. Aha! makes you jump, does it? That's bad! Let me tickle the soles of your feet. Don't giggle! This is serious! You're on the skids, doc; better give up eating, drinking, smoking and anything else you happen to like.". . . But this is idle daydreaming.

Friday: Did some more odds and ends of Christmas shopping today. Bought fifteen dozen handkerchiefs for female relatives. I don't know what women do with their handkerchiefs; every year I give away a car-load of them, but I have never known a woman who had a handkerchief on her person at any time when she needed one. Older women always keep their handkerchiefs upstairs so that they can send their younger relatives after them. Young women never have handkerchiefs, and when they cry (which they do very frequently during courtship and usually for no good reason) they always borrow a handkerchief from the man in the case. When they marry, they appoint their husbands Handkerchief Bearer in Chief for the rest of his life. Sometimes they carry boxes of paper handkerchiefs, when they have colds, but never the cloth variety. And why are women's handkerchiefs so small? What a woman really needs is a handkerchief as big as a table-cloth, pinned to her bosom with a blanket-pin.

Saturday: The pest who was nagging me last week about deep-breathing was at me this evening on the subject of water-drinking. "How much water do you drink a day?" he asked, finishing a glass of my beer. "About half a paper cupful," I replied, knowing that it was not a satisfactory answer. He made a great show of disgust. "Four gallons a day is the minimum -- the bare minimum," he said, when he could speak. "That would be about two pails," I said mildly; "I don't think I could drink that much in a day -- not if I expected to do anything else, that is." "It would flush your system," he persisted; "you're probably a mass of crystallization inside. Try it tomorrow.". . . Later he phoned me. "By the way," he said, trying to be casual, "I made a slight mistake. Should have said four quarts -- not four gallons." Poor boob! he really means four pints, which is too much anyway. He is reading a health book, and giving all his acquaintances the benefit. It is one of the mistakes of democracy that it teaches such people to read.

- LI -.

Sunday: Rummaging in some of my personal debris today I found two Christmas cards which I bought in 1939 and forgot to send out. They will be very handy this year if I can find envelopes to fit them. . . I was really searching for pen nibs, of which I have a large but unsatisfactory store. In these days when people write with ballbearings and solid ink, and at the bottom of the lake while swimming, and otherwise miraculously, I am an embittered reactionary scraping away with a wooden pen which I dip after every eighth word. I do this because I like a particular sort of flexible nib which cannot be obtained in any fountain pen that I have ever owned or tried. But alas! such nibs are now very hard to find, and in despair I buy every nib I see, hoping to find a substitute for my unobtainable favourites. Consequently I have enough nibs to open a stationery store, none of which really pleases me. I know that I am at anchor in the stream of progress, but I don't care. It has pleased God to make me a dipper man, and who am I to struggle against the Divine Will? (This is the same line of argument which sustained my late uncle, the Rt. Rev. Hengist Marchbanks, Bishop of Baffinland, in his lifelong struggle against the heathen abomination of blotting-paper; he always sprinkled sand on what he had written, to dry it.) Monday: I get the strangest stuff in the mail. A letter turned up this morning which began "Dear God --", but what followed was so confused that I could not make out whether this was a cry from the writer's heart, or a somewhat elaborate compliment to myself. The same post brought an invitation from the Book-of-the-Month Club, asking me to bestow the benediction of my presence upon its membership. The pamphlet by which this invitation was conveyed was beautifully printed and ornamented with finely reproduced illustrations from Alice In Wonderland. The richness of the printing, however, was not balanced by the literary quality of the matter printed, which was, for a book club, rather poorly expressed. This added to my conviction that Americans are especially susceptible to things which appeal to their eyes, like pictures, rather than things which appeal to their ears, like pieces of prose. In the same way they like fruit which looks delicious, rather than less impressive fruit which really tastes delicious. No book clubs for me today, thank you.

Tuesday: Somehow or other the rumour has spread among some children I know that I am a conjuror and they are always teasing me to do magic. My skill is not great, but their standards are very low, and usually I manage to satisfy them. This afternoon a little girl demanded that I should do something miraculous, so I swallowed a fork, and, after feigning indigestion very laughably, I produced it from the sole of my boot. She was impressed, but not completely satisfied. "There's no blood on it," said she. . . Children have disgustingly literal minds, and hearts of stone.

Wednesday: Thought a good deal today about games for a Christmas party. There are plenty of dull games of course, in which one is given a piece of paper and put off in a corner to write the names of all the rivers one can think of beginning with "G," and there are embarrassing games in which one is tied back to back with a total stranger of the opposite sex and instructed to get free without breaking the strings. But between boredom and ribald lunacy there are some excellent games; the kind I particularly like are those in which one runs all over the house, hiding in the bathtubs and the coalpile, and jumping at people in the dark; the nearer a game approximates to the plot of a Boris Karloff film, the better I like it. There are also games in which the whole company passes judgment on the intelligence, charm and youth of each player in turn; the delight of such amusements is the narrow path they tread between good humour and malignance; many a beautiful friendship has been ruptured by such shenanigans.

Thursday: At last it seems that I have a Christmas gift for everybody who has a right to expect one from me, and for a few who have none. I see no signs whatever that anyone has a gift for me, but I am used to that; I have always found it more pleasant to give than to receive. (Advt.). . . A man was complaining to me today about the agonies he goes through with Athlete's Foot; apparently his wife and his daughter suffer from this ailment also. He seemed to think that there was something rather distinguished about having Athlete's Foot as badly as he had it; he ranked it with such noble maladies as Coronary Thrombosis and Paralysis Agitans. I was not impressed. At one time in my life I mixed a good deal with shepherds and sheep-breeders, and a lot of their sheep suffered from Athlete's Foot, only they called it foot-rot, pronounced "fut-rot." The sheep got it by standing around in damp grass, staring at one another. Futrot was treated with a nasty substance called Stockholm Tar; if it brought no relief, the sheep was knocked over the head with a club. I think I shall suggest to my friend that he and his wife and daughter try Stockholm Tar for a few weeks, and if they do not improve, the next step is obvious.

Friday and Parcelmas: Frantic wrapping of parcels. Through some idiosyncrasy of character, I always seem to give people things which are hard to wrap. The adze for my nephew Gobemouche, for instance, keeps bursting through the gold paper which I bought to wrap it, paying an exorbitant fifteen cents a sheet. And Fairchild's spokeshave keeps spokeshaving its way through thickness after thickness of tissue; it was a mistake to take it out of the burlap in which it came. I refuse to put my gifts under the Christmas tree unwrapped, for part of the pleasure of Christmas is watching the faces of the recipients of one's gifts as they tear off the concealing folds. Sometimes the objects of my benevolence have been moved to tears; often they are so thunderstruck that they cannot speak. The time I gave my Aunt Lettice the turtle nicely wrapped and in a jeweller's box, she fainted dead away; if I had just hung the turtle on the tree unwrapped it wouldn't have been the same thing at all.

Saturday and Christmas Eve: A great deal of scurrying hither and yon, and lending one's forefinger to people who want to use it in tying knots. Having wrapped my gifts in the attic, I have to carry them down to the foot of the Christmas tree. This is no easy task, and a couple of adzes and some axe-helves slipped out of my arms and tumbled down the stairs with deafening crashes at every step: tried to cover the noise by singing Silent Night, Holy Night lustily. . . Later joined my relatives for an impromptu Christmas concert, and was moved to tears when my little nephew Gobemouche recited 'Twas Christmas Eve in The Workhouse; later he offered to recite a piece called Eskimo Nell, but was not allowed to do so for some reason which was not made clear to me. . . When the others had gone to bed, crept down to the Christmas tree and read all the tags on the parcels, by the light of a candle-end; very few for me. Heard a thumping in the fireplace and thought for a wild moment that it was Santa Claus, but it was my brother Fairchild, covered with soot; he too had been peeping and had taken refuge up the chimney when he heard me coming. We retired to the kitchen, and ate pieces of cold plum pudding.

- LII -.

Sunday and Christmas: Hurry-scurry, hamper-scamper, tohu-bohu and brouhaha. The happy excited voices of children sounding like the laughter of angels at 8 a.m. and sounding rather more like the squeaking of slate pencils or the filing of a tin can at 5 p.m. Conversations conducted in yells and the incessant rustling of tissue paper. Everyone lays claim to a Dickensian appetite, but shows signs of latter-day squeamishness when faced with a third helping of plum pudding. In some cases, torpor and somnolence have their way; in others, excitement rises to the point of acute Anxiety Neurosis. But it is all very happy, with occasional surface irritations. . . Christmas is best for children, and for those who are growing old; in middle life one's capacity for enjoyment is under the constraint of a thousand responsibilities.

Monday and Postmortemas: Boxing Day. The joy of Christmas has been rather heavily overlaid by the necessity to cope with immense meals, spend a lot of money giving people things they don't really want, and subdue children who have been driven to the uttermost pitch of neurasthenia by the excitement and over-indulgence of it all. Perhaps this is merely the result of the gastro-intestinal megrim from which I am recovering.

Tuesday: Was reading the funnies today (just to keep in touch with what the common people are thinking) and was struck by the change which has taken place in what may be called the dynamics of humour. When I first began to read the funnies this subject was simple; the great professor of humorous dynamics was Bud Fisher, the creator of Mutt and Jeff. When Mutt hit Jeff with a spittoon, the noise which came out of Jeff's head was "Pow," which was clearly printed at the appropriate spot; if Mutt threw Jeff out of a window, the trajectory of his flight was labelled "Zowie." Jiggs never made these noises; nothing ever came out of his head except stars and comets. But nowadays this dynamic field is vastly expanded. When a boxer is given a knockout blow his chin emits the word "BLAM" in big letters; when a man is kicked by a horse or a mule his afflicted part says "Zok!" Two of the dynamic sounds greatly used in Barney Google have vanished from my ken; they were "Plop" (for falling on the floor) and "Wham" for being struck with a broom. There's no doubt about it, science is on the march in every sphere.

Wednesday: This morning was compelled to listen to a long distance call. The telephone company was, as usual, quick and polite in getting my office, but then I became involved in a sparring match with the caller's secretary, who was determined not to let me speak to him until his full impressiveness and executive splendour had been paraded before me. This involved many repetitions of "Are you ready to speak to Mr. Squealy?" "Just a moment, please," "Are you ready at your end, Mr. Marchbanks?" "Hold the line, please, Mr. Squealy isn't quite ready yet." This went on for quite a time and was punctuated with sounds like "Bzzzzt" which I think the secretary caused by blowing a raspberry into the phone. All this nonsense begot a somewhat morose attitude in my mind, and when at last Mr. Squealy burst upon me in all his glory, I was surly with him. Secretaries who seek to build up their bosses by such means merely make their Mr. Squealies detested by all honest men.

Thursday: A bus driver was telling me today about how he had been robbed of his underwear and a package of pork chops while driving his bus. Unfortunately a traffic snarl cut him off in the middle of the story, and I did not find out whether he was wearing the underwear at the time or whether it was in the parcel. I have seen a conjuror take off his shirt without removing his coat, and I suppose a clever thief might strip a man in the same way. I brooded on this problem for some time, and was reminded of my cousin Manfred Marchbanks, the organist, who once shocked the daylights out of a lady pupil by telling her that he was going to show her how to change her combinations without taking her feet off the pedals. . . Later was in a hardware store when a man knocked over several dollars worth of window glass; he showed the most admirable self-possession, though I thought he breathed rather more powerfully through his nose than a man would do who was utterly unmoved. When I do something like that I shriek and moan like one of the tragedians with the Habimah Players, and have to have feathers burned under my nose before I am fit for anything.

Friday: To the theatre tonight and sat behind a man who had hives, or St. Vitus' dance, or some other restless complaint. A few weeks ago it was my task to read a small child a book by a writer named Enid Blyton, whose work I had not previously known, and whose other books I feel no urge to seek; this one was about a restless, bouncing little creature called the Fairy Bobabout. I had never expected to sit behind the Fairy Bobabout in a theatre, but there I was, and there was F.B., right ahead. I heard people behind me muttering, and such scraps of conversation reached me as "I wish he'd keep still," "Do you think we could change our seats" and more to the same effect. Thinking that they too were annoyed with F.B. I turned and grinned my agreement at them, to be greeted with stony glares and sniffs. And then the horrible truth dawned upon me that as Bobabout jumped to the right, I had jumped to the left, and vice versa, to avoid him, and thus, to the people behind me I was no better than he. I was BOB-ABOUT. This so unnerved me that for the rest of the evening I sat crunched up in one arthritic posture, tense with shame.

Saturday: The last day of the year, and I passed part of the evening in melancholy reflection upon the waste of time which has always been my greatest sin. If only I could drive myself to do physical jerks for an hour a day, read improving books for an hour a day, practise on the piano for an hour a day, philosophize and ponder on life for an hour a day, eat less, drink less, sleep less, work harder, eat wholemeal bread, drink eight gallons of water a day, stop smoking, and overcome my ribald disdain for nice simple people who, whatever their short-comings, Mean Well -- if only I could do all these things, what a wonderful fellow I should be! This line of thought made me so discontented with myself that I had not the heart to toast the New Year, and midnight found me crouching by a dying fire, glumly eating a bowl of breakfast food and wondering if suicide might not be best for me and for my fellow-men. Roused myself at last to make a final entry in this diary, which I leave with something of the feeling experienced by Gibbon when he completed the Decline and Fall. . . To the reader who has read thus far, Adieu.

end

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