“In Youth Is Pleasure” recounts the summer vacation of Orvil Pym—a sensitive, withdrawn, and deeply unhappy boy of fifteen. Following a trying year at public school, Orvil spends the summer with his father and two older brothers. The quotidian events of a seemingly ordinary summer are rendered dazzling by the intensity of adolescence and Welch’s gift for human observation. First published in 1945, “In Youth Is Pleasure” is based closely on Welch’s own adolescent experiences of solitude and introspection.
This volume also includes “I Left My Grandfather’s House,” an unforgettable account of a walking tour through the British countryside. These two works feature Welch at his autobiographical best.
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In Youth Is Pleasure
& I Left My Grandfather's House
By Denton Welch
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 William Burroughs
All rights reserved.
One summer, several years before the war began, a young boy of fifteen was staying with his father and two elder brothers at a hotel near the Thames in Surrey. The hotel had once been a country house, and before that a royal palace. But now the central courtyard was glassed over to make a huge tea-lounge; there was a glistening range of downstairs cloakrooms, and a whole new wing with ballroom, and little box bedrooms above.
The hotel still stood in charming parkland, with terraced gardens and lawns sloping down to a little artificial lake almost entirely surrounded by huge overgrown brambles. Only the lake and its banks were neglected; the rest of the grounds, with the fountain, the grotto, the cottage orné, and the elaborate pets' cemetery, were kept in very trim order.
The young boy, whose name was Orvil Pym, wandered out into these trim gardens on his first night at the hotel. He and his father had arrived that afternoon in one of those large black polished Daimlers which the suspicious always imagine have been hired.
Mr. Pym, home from the East for six months, had gone up to the Midlands to fetch Orvil from school. Orvil had been ill for the last few days of term. Being already very uneasy and anxious about life, he was one of the first to show signs of food-poisoning; but soon two wards in the Sanatorium were full of other boys from his House showing the same signs. A little fever, a little sickness, a little diarrhoea, that was all. The boys were merry and bright, rolling the white china po's along the boards, swearing and telling stories and abusing one another in the stillness of the night.
The poisoning upset the Housemaster's wife far more than it upset its victims. The food was good in her house, the boys knew it, everyone knew it. She did not scrimp or save to put money in her husband's pocket for their retirement. Why, only last Sunday there had been salmon and cucumber, and trifle with real cream!
She went about ashamed, turning red suddenly for no outward reason. She hated to think of the things the other Housemasters' wives were saying. The mean ones would be delighting that she, who gave good food generously, should poison half her boys; and the kind ones would be pitying her. Both the imagined exulting and the pity gave the poor Housemaster's wife a great deal of pain.
What could it have been? she kept asking herself. Could it have been the potted meat at tea?
Orvil was delighted and relieved when he knew that he was physically ill at last. His first year at a public school had been so alarming and disintegrating that he found himself longing, all the time, for a very quiet room where he could go to sleep.
At first the Sanatorium had been quiet, and he had enjoyed himself; but then the other boys had begun to arrive and the place was turned quickly into a bear-garden.
One evening Orvil could stand no more. His face and arms had become bluish, with ugly spreading red blotches. This condition was due to three things: the poisoning, his anxiety, and the large amount of a drug, like aspirin only stronger, which the nurse had given him. He got out of bed, seemingly in a trance; then he hopped on all fours round his bed, croaking, "I'm a frog, I'm a frog, a huge white frog."
There was a silence for a moment in the ward; then a large boy, with black hair just beginning to sprout in his nose, shouted out in a frightened voice, "Nurse, nurse, come quickly; Pym has gone queer and is hopping round the floor saying he's a frog."
The nurse ran in and raised Orvil up in her arms. Although she was so small, her body was very strong and hard, and she held Orvil's weight against her with ease. She was laughing quietly to herself as she led him back to bed.
"Fancy thinking you're a frog!" she said, trying to smooth back his thick coarse curly hair, and doing up the top button of his pyjama jacket which he always left undone. She bustled away to get water and towels for a tepid rubdown.
Orvil still pretended to be in a dreamlike state. When she returned, he heard the boys whispering, "Pym's delirious, he's seeing things!"
The nurse took off his jacket and began to sponge his chest and arms with the tepid water. He kept his eyes closed; he did not like to see her looking at his chest. She held up one of his hands gently, and let the water trickle down till it tickled his armpit. He gave a little shiver and she laughed.
"You'll be better after this," she said, "you'll feel cooler."
When she had dried the top half of his body she popped on his jacket and pulled down his trousers almost in one movement; then she flung a towel expertly across him and began to wash under it, between his legs. Orvil was hot and sticky there, and the cool spongings made him tremble, but he did not mind her quick hands darting about under the towel. He felt safe with his jacket on.
'I wonder if Florence Nightingale taught this way of doing things. Isn't it peculiar!' he thought.
"Stop shaking, do!" said the nurse, smacking his thighs playfully; for by now his knees were pressing together and then parting, and his whole body was giving little convulsive movements forward.
Orvil tried to control the twitchings of his body, and then his teeth began to chatter. They clicked together like loose false teeth, and once he bit his tongue and gave a grunt of pain.
"What are you now? A little porker?" suggested the nurse unsympathetically. She did not know what had happened. She finished drying his legs, tied the plaited cord a little too tightly round his waist, and tucked the bedclothes round him again.
"Now you'll feel fine," she said; and she gave him two more of the tablets which had helped to make him so blotchy. Once more she tried to comb her fingers through his hair, but she gave it up, laughing. "It's like a terrier dog's coat, or the best thatch, guaranteed to keep the rain out for a hundred years." Then she added more softly, "Good night, lad," and left him.
'"Lad" is queer,' Orvil thought; 'it's full of sex.' And he went on thinking of words and the different feelings they gave him, until at last he fell asleep.
Orvil was thrilled to see his father in the big black car, waiting at the front door of the Sanatorium. The sight was so unexpected that it seemed like a direct and magic answer to his craving.
'I did not need so large a car for my Escape,' he thought; 'but Magic would never niggle, never send a Baby Austin.'
He ran out into the sun; his head began to swim and he felt a maddening tickle in one of his ears.
"Hullo, Daddy," he cried out, holding open the door of the car for his father. Orvil only saw his father once in every three years, and Mr. Pym hardly meant more to him than black cars and exciting restaurant meals. They had very little to talk about, because the one subject of deep interest to them both was quite banned. Orvil's mother had died three years ago; and he knew that if he even so much as mentioned her, his father's face would freeze and harden, and his voice become abrupt and cruel and contemptuous. She was never to be thought of or considered again—because she had been loved so much. It was disgusting to show that you knew such a woman had ever existed. She was so unmentionable that it was necessary to use elaborate circumlocutions in speaking about the past.
"Hullo, Microbe," said Mr. Pym. He had always called Orvil this, because he was his youngest and smallest child. Sometimes it was Maggot, but generally Microbe.
"Are you better?" he went on. "You look a bit patchy still."
"Oh, I'm quite all right again. Shall we go quickly, now?" said Orvil, looking urgently at his father. He hurried away to get his bag, and did not feel safe until the village, and all the school buildings, had been left far behind.
The chauffeur's driving was expert and smooth. For two moments Orvil was filled with joy in his freedom; then he began to worry, for already the holidays had started, and each second brought the next term nearer.
Mr. Pym suggested that they should spend the night at Oxford on their way down to the South. If they did this they would be able to find out if Charles, the eldest son, were still at his lodgings or not. Charles was of so independent a nature that he refused to tell his plans or ever to write any letters. Mr. Pym had to find out about his son as best he could.
Charles was not there. When they enquired at his lodgings, the landlady said that he had left at the end of the term with two other gentlemen. "They drove away in that snorting blue car of his," she said contemptuously. Orvil hated his brother's blue Bugatti almost as much as the landlady seemed to do. The leather straps across its swollen bonnet, the obscene exhaust-pipe, so like a greedy vacuum-cleaner, these parts particularly filled him with dislike.
Orvil and his father went back to the Mitre and sat in basket chairs under the glass roof. Mr. Pym ordered gin and French Vermouth for himself and orange juice for Orvil. He did not talk but began to look at the magazines lying on the table. A gloom spread over Orvil. His father looked up, then took the cherry from his cocktail and held it out, just as he used to do when Orvil was a very small boy. Orvil took the violent pink fruit between his teeth, while his father still held the other end of the wooden toothpick. The wicked taste of scent and alcohol and syrup struck against the roof of his mouth; and in a moment he was eight years old and back again by the library fire in his pyjamas, drinking his hot milk, while his father sipped his cocktail and read to him until the clock chimed twice for half-past seven.
'How many cherries soaked in gin did I eat before I was ten?' he wondered.
"Let's go in to dinner," said Mr. Pym, standing up after his third gin and French. He made his son precede him on their way into the dining-room. This pleased Orvil.
He stood in some confusion in the middle of the room, looking at all the coloured shields round the walls, waiting for his father to choose a table. By the time he had found the shield of his brother's college, his father had decided on the table near an old lady who seemed to be eating nothing but boiled eggs. Two shells were already before her on the white table-cloth. She was snapping her nutcracker lips together and saying something vicious to the young waiter who bent over her. Once her hand darted up to her mouth, and Orvil saw that the skin fitted over the bones like a translucent sheet of gelatine. On one of her fingers she wore a half-hoop of very large diamonds; the sort of ring that harmonizes with white suites of bedroom furniture, wreaths of composition roses, inset panels of cane-work, silver shoe-horns and button-hooks, and Reynolds's angel faces on the oxidized lids of powder-pots.
Orvil watched her through most of the meal, but this did not stop him from also paying attention to his food. First he had tomato soup and ate plenty of Melba toast with it; then he went on to roast duck and orange salad with mashed potato and creamed spinach. Spinach done in this way always reminded Orvil of something. He could not help it; although he tried to rid his mind of the image, it sprang up again with each new sight of the dish. Once in a field full of buttercups he had trodden in a cow-pat. He had looked down at his foot which had broken through the hardened outer crust. It lay in a trough lined with darkest richest green. 'What a wonderful colour!' he'd thought; 'it's just like velvet or jade, or creamed spinach.'
Now, as the waiter put the soft spoonfuls on his plate, the image was with him again. 'I'm eating cow-pat, I'm eating cow-pat!' he said to himself as he dug his fork in.
"What would you like afterwards?" his father asked. He was a man who got pleasure from watching other people eat. He himself was only having juicy black mushrooms on toast. The mushrooms, with their flattened damaged gills radiating from a centre, looked like shrunken scalps of coarse Oriental hair.
Orvil read the menu.
"I want pêche Melba," he said.
"It won't be a fresh peach," his father warned him.
"I don't think I've ever had pêche Melba with a fresh peach," Orvil mused; "it's always been a big yellow tinned peach."
"I know; that's just the trouble. They never do it properly. They oughtn't to make it at all if they don't make it with fresh peaches." Mr. Pym seemed quite angry; although Orvil knew that nothing on earth would ever persuade his father to eat a pêche Melba himself.
"But in England sometimes the fresh peaches are half a crown or more each," Orvil said, still defending pêche Melba made with a tinned peach.
His father said nothing in answer but went on drinking whisky-and-soda in delicate gulps.
The pêche Melba arrived with its dripping veil of thick red Escoffier sauce. The two slices had been joined together so that the buttock-like shape of the fruit was again apparent.
'It's like a celluloid cupid doll's behind,' said Orvil to himself. 'This cupid doll has burst open and is pouring out lovely snow and great big clots of blood.'
Orvil put some of the metallic-tasting red sauce on his tongue. His father watched him indulgently and carefully until the last bit of peach had disappeared, then they both got up and went back to the basket chairs under the glass roof.
"You pour out," his father said, when the coffee was brought. This again, like the walking in front into the dining-room, gave Orvil a peculiar pleasure. He felt important.
His father had his coffee black, with three lumps of sugar in the tiny cup; then quietly and gently he fell asleep. Orvil watched the delicate puce veins on his father's nose and cheeks. They appeared to him as minute purple hands and fingers reaching out to one another. Orvil wondered if his father had been smoking opium again. Knowing nothing about the drug, he always imagined this when his father fell asleep suddenly. He knew that his father did smoke it sometimes; for he had once said in rather too jovial and conversational a tone, "A fellow in Java suggested that we should each try a pipe one night; but the stuff did nothing to me, except make me sick, so I've never touched it again."
Always, after this sentence, Orvil was waiting and watching to catch the smell of opium round his father. He knew the smell, because when he was nine his aunt, knowing that he loved bijouterie and toys, gave him an old Chinese opium-box. It was made of ivory which had been stained by the drug to the colour of a chestnut horse. When Orvil first lifted the lid, an unmistakable, quite novel odour had escaped. Sticky brown opium still clung to the sides and the bottom of the ivory box. Every holidays, whenever he returned to his cupboard of small treasures, he would take off the lid and sniff the strange opium smell again.
He looked at his father once more. Orvil wanted to go up to bed, and he wondered whether to wake his father or not. For his own part he would rather have left him sleeping, but he was afraid that if he did this his father might disgrace himself in some way, under the glass roof in the hotel lounge. He might belch in his sleep, or snore, or swear, or give away terrible family secrets in that specially alarming sleep-talker's voice.
He touched him on the shoulder lightly and said, "I'm going up to bed, Daddy."
Mr. Pym opened his eyes and looked at him quite blankly for a moment, then his eyes focused, losing their resemblance to boiled cod's eyes, and he replied, "Good-night, Microbe. Sleep tight. Don't let the fleas bite."
Orvil had had the strangest night. The temptation to do something bad had come many times, but he had withstood it, and had felt very powerful and good, as if God were on his side. His dreams had been even more terrifying and wonderful than usual. He found himself lying full-length in an enormous open wound. The exposed, gently bubbling, cushiony flesh was very comfortable; but he knew that if he moved even his eyelid muscle he would inflict terrible pain on the giant in whose wounded red bosom he lay. In another dream, grotesquely enlarged diamonds waved about on long gold wires. They were contrived to look like sunflowers in a garden bed. Orvil was a very small child lost under the artificial leaves of these flowers. The wind blew; the diamonds rocked madly, backwards and forwards, banging their cruel facets against Orvil's face. Like glittering, vicious footballs of ice, the huge diamonds struck his head, tearing the flesh till his eyes were filled with blood and he could feel the points of adamant ringing on white bone.
Excerpted from In Youth Is Pleasure by Denton Welch. Copyright © 1985 William Burroughs. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
IN YOUTH IS PLEASURE,
I LEFT MY GRANDFATHER'S HOUSE,
About the Author,