Chapter 20. Quentin ― First Robert Burns, and Then a Case of the Hardening of the ‘Oughteries’

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!”

‘To a louse’ by Robert Burns

Many people thought him a prig.  Harvey would have thought him a prig, and would probably have called him one to his face too, if he had known him at this time.  To give him his due, Quentin regarded himself a prig too, in those moments of clarity when he stood back from himself and saw himself as others saw him.  Burns was right, and even a louse can tell us a lot, as long as Burns is there to explain how. 

Harvey and Quentin were destined never to meet, but strangely they had come close to doing so without knowing it, at Oxford.  They started at Oxford in the same October, and they almost met each other in the year before Harvey met Anne.

Both of them knew a girl from Redruth called Alice Penhow.  Harvey had met her one Saturday evening just before Christmas in a pub in the Turl where he was celebrating a rugby win over Exeter University.  Quentin had met her when they were both collecting money for Oxfam the previous week.  Alice had spent her grant well before Christmas, and, despite studying economics, she organised her own finances so badly that she always found herself short of money.  This is often the case, isn’t it?  The hairdresser’s hair often needs cutting. Alice didn’t know either Harvey or Quentin very well, but Quentin seemed a really kind person, he had helped Oxfam, hadn’t he, and so she asked him to lend her £30 until January. This, she told him, would tide her over. Today £30 would buy little, but then, when beer was 11d a pint, it went a long way. Quentin thought about it, and thought how ill-advised it was to encourage anyone to borrow money, how it would lead Alice further into debt, how it was the first step on a slippery path, and said no.

Alice then approached Harvey, who straightaway said yes, and then checked how much he actually had to live on himself.  After a quick calculation he thought that he could just about manage, so he gave Alice the £30, although this did curtail his own pleasures somewhat.  She paid him back in January and was grateful to him ever afterwards.  

Quentin felt pleased with himself for acting rightly. It was for Alice’s own good, wasn’t it? Neither Harvey nor Quentin knew of the other’s existence until much later on. And Alice?  She faded out of their story and this story.

That was Quentin.  He thought before he acted.  He was never spontaneous. He calculated all the probabilities. He weighed up the most likely results of all his actions.       

He was beset by concern about the best course to take.  Of all intrusive worries, those that come dressed in religious or ethical guise are the hardest to dispel.  He genuinely did not know whether to pay them attention.  Were they ultimately good?   Is this what he ought to be doing?  And the key word here was “ought”. Quentin was suffering from ‘A hardening of the oughteries!’ as someone had wisely diagnosed it.  He always felt that he should be doing more ‘good works’.  But he could never bring himself to make the decision to change course completely and leave the ‘oughts’ behind.  If a friend had come to him with similar problems, Quentin could probably have given him sensible advice.  But he couldn’t give it to himself.  Or if he did think clearly in a lucid moment, he couldn’t put this into practice later. 

He longed to be one of the boys.  In fact, he rarely felt better than on those darts evenings on Fridays in a pub on Blackboy Hill in Bristol with his colleagues from Hinkley Barton, the firm of accountants where he had worked for a year now.  Surprisingly, he was good at darts and the others respected him for that. But when not out in the pub and protected by beer and the excitement of the darts match, he kept having thoughts of duty and ‘good works’.  When he genuinely tried to analyse all this and sat down and considered things clearly for five minutes, the ‘oughts’ did not seem important. But he couldn’t free himself from them. They always came up to the surface.  They emerged again and again. Oddly they came most when he was at his weakest.  They came at four in the morning when he could not sleep or when he was cold on a railway station waiting for a train that was late or lost in the evening in a city he did not know.   Perhaps he was more to be pitied than criticized, but criticized he certainly had been at school, at university, and at work whenever the ‘good works’ side had taken control. When he had followed its demands to the letter, people regarded him as pious and self-righteous, and in his saner moments he himself was inclined to agree with them.

So Quentin did good deeds, but he did them by the book, and the more good deeds he did, the more he felt he ought to do.  He was driven. Was all this his fault?  These thoughts just came to him.  He felt bad when he had them, but it was hard to combat them.  Perhaps if he had quietly devoted himself to a different life from the outset, being a social worker perhaps, his conscience would have been stilled, or at least seen for what it really was, and reason would have gained the upper hand.  But he had opted for accountancy, and the thoughts came. He felt that there was no one to turn to.  People would laugh at him. “He jests at scars who never felt a wound.”  So, on he went, battling each day with his conscience. His life wasn´t easy.

Quentin loved order and method.  His wardrobe was tidy.  His suits and trousers were arranged on hangers according to frequency of use. His drawers were organized and in them all his clothes were neatly folded.  His desk was tidy, and his pencils, all sharpened to a pinpoint, were lined up by size. His diary was always open at the correct day, and on Friday evening, at 6.00 o’clock, the page was turned to Monday.  At the weekend he allowed himself a respite.   

He was insured for everything.  He hated leaving anything to chance.  The advertisements for life insurance, health insurance, car insurance, house and contents insurance, holiday insurance and anything else insurance struck an answering chord in his heart.  He covered all eventualities, and when he closed his front door on the world at night, he felt safe and secure.  And he felt bored.  No peaks, no valleys, no precipices.  Cycling along a flat road for months on end can be very dull.

It says something for him that his days with Anne, which were the least organized, had been some of the happiest days of his life. Even the ‘oughts’ took a holiday, seeing in Anne a rival that they could not combat for the time being.  Quentin felt that Anne was the way forward for him.   She was good for him, and he genuinely hoped that he could make her happy.