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Authors: Austin Clarke

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BOOK: The Bigger Light
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Boysie lived four or five subway stations east from Bathurst, and he was glad that he lived so far. He was glad that he did not have to travel to work on the subways with “these blasted thieves.” He did not know what he would do should he meet one of them. And it did not matter to him whether the thug was in the act of snatching a woman’s purse; it did not matter to him that he had never had one of them pointed out to him; he did not know their names, or their police descriptions, and one of them had never molested his wife as she travelled back and forth from the Doctor’s Hospital. He was not concerned or interested in such evidence. The newspaper reports were
enough for him to convict these “thieves” in his mind, and arrest them with his own hands, should he come upon such a young West Indian in the subway.

“They making things more bad for everybody,” he told Dots on another occasion. “This country have enough jobs for everybody to get at least one. Look at a man like me. I come into this country, and I did truly and really suffer a little bit. But it takes a while to know the ropes. I know the ropes now: I have work hard as hell for what I have. I build a business. And be-damn, no blasted West Indian thief is going to make life miserable for me.” He was thinking clearly now. He was finding words and a new language coming with an ease he did not know existed. And he was preparing his mind to commit these thoughts to the exercise book in which he composed the first drafts of his letters to the editor. He wanted the Canadian public to know that there were some, “Hell, man! Not just
some!
They must be thousands, perhaps hundreds upon thousands o’ Barbadians living here who do not believe in no foolishness like thiefing. Barbadians is hard-working people. Law-abiding, too, Godblindyou!”, that there were many Barbadians who did not come to this country to live off stealing, and gambling and betting on the races; and many other West Indians, too.

He stopped thinking of himself as a West Indian, and he became strictly a Barbadian. He began to have doubts about Caribbean nationalism, about the West Indies as a group of people distinct from any other group. He did not know too much about Africa, and therefore talk he had heard about something called “Pan-Africanism” did not bother him too much. And he wished that Henry was around to give him some support for his views; but after all, he was a man, and he was a Barbadian.

Boysie did not want to be known as a black nationalist either. He was simply a hard-working Barbadian. But he wished he was wealthy and privileged and very conservative. Conservative to him meant a very good life and excellent education and being a Canadian. In a short time, he would qualify to take out Canadian landed immigrant status, and “be-Christ, I am going to get that passport the morning after I qualify for it!”

This tension in him did not permit him to be comfortable any longer in places where they sang calypsoes, danced the Reggae and played rhythm and blues. His discomfort began affecting his drinking, and he moved from the calypso clubs to the posh drinking places, the street-level bars in the Park Plaza Hotel, on Bloor Street, a fashionable area of the city. He took Dots there once. The first time they were dressed as if they were going to a wedding. Boysie himself felt a bit uncomfortable, but he told himself he had to endure it. Dots was not sure. He would sit and sip and dream of how successful he was becoming, and wish that the bartender or the waiter would realize that he was serving drinks to a celebrity, that it was he who had written three letters to the newspapers, and had got them published in the Letters to the Editor column. He would sit and sip and wait for this recognition. He would wait for someone from among this unknown crowd of low-talking self-assured young Canadian executives to see that the man sitting in their midst was, by his appearance and dress, not the same as those “blasted thieves” in the subway, snatching purses. No one ever recognized him in this way. Once, the bartender smiled, and said, “Cold enough for ya, buddy?” Boysie did not know what rejoinder to make.

He would think of those old ladies crossing the street, slowly, near his building, going down to the corner to purchase
their small bottles of liquor (he bought his by the case these days), and he would think of the woman appearing at the same time each morning of the week from the subway station, and he would look at his wife, sitting equally uncomfortably at the table facing him, but not seeing him, not recognizing him, sipping her drink of gin and tonic, no expression on her face, just looking into the space between them, the space that was widening every day, and he would place this woman in the brown winter coat in the chair next to him, between him and Dots, and talk to Dots as if he was talking to that distant woman.

“Dots, do you know something?” he said one Saturday night, as they were sitting at the small round black table, which had become Boysie’s favourite place in the darkened corner of the classy bar. “I’ve been thinking of incorporating the little business.”

“Doing what?”

“Incorporating.”

“What incorporating means?”

“Incorporating. Incorporation, you know. Incorporation and incorporation taxes. You read about it in the papers every day. The big boys do it all the time. Down on Bay Street in the stock market, where I work …”

“You only cleans offices down there, though, Boysie!”

“Anyhow … I see this incorporation thing as the only thing that could save a man like me. The only thing to save me from paying so much taxes to the government. I see myself getting bigger and bigger. Seeing the light. Just because o’ this incorporation thing!”

“What do you do with this incorporation thing, Boysie?”


Do?

“Yes, do! Yuh must be able to
do
something with a thing which you say … ”

“I see myself buying a couple of apartment buildings. No black man in this country ever do that. Then … the stock market, and then, maybe …”

“A castle in the air!” Dots said, and laughed from the barrel of her heaving stomach.

“When I go to work on Bay Street, every evening …”

“You don’t work down there, Boysie. You
cleans offices
down there.”

He ignored her comment, and went on talking and dreaming, turning the matter over in his mind, talking not really about it to her, but as if he was already incorporated, and was trying to acquaint his wife with his new status.

“The idea of incorporation may look like a simple thing to you, but I have the opinion that it is a more serious thing than you making out.”

“I tired as hell. I work all week in that hospital, and I want to get home to my bed.”

Boysie swallowed his drink, and with it went a bit of his pride.

“Man, tek me home in this blasted old truck, do, lemme watch the Johnny Carson show!” She made him feel her full resentment by sucking inward with her breath on her teeth; and when she shut the door on her side, it was as if the truck had exploded. Boysie made a note to himself to print
BOYSIE CUMBERBATCH CLEANERS, INC
., on the sides of his panel truck. That would be the first step, he thought, towards incorporation.

Dots shifts her position in the seat, and prepares herself to get out. They turn into the street where their apartment building is, and they are blocked by taxis and cars parked all over the street, and the street is crowded with young people, boisterous and happy and some drunk, going to parties in the same
building. Dots notices the West Indian men with their women. And Boysie notices only the West Indian men. “I gotta get outta this area,” Dots says, while he struggles to park the truck. “I gotta get out!” Her tone and the voice of the turning tires are at the same irritating pitch.

“How did you like that girl at the piano?” They are inside the lobby now. Boysie selects the front door key from a bunch of keys. “She’s a great singer, eh?”

“Open the door, man,” Dots says. “It cold.”

The elevator was climbing. Boysie asked her what she thought of the music, and of the place where they had been drinking. Dots heard only the noise of his words. She remained silent. She was far away from him. At any rate, there were other people in the elevator, and she hated to talk in strange company. She had learned how to stand beside him, or lie beside him in bed at night, and not hear one word he was saying. People would be in the elevator or in the subway car with her, and she could wipe them out of her consciousness. In the elevator with them now were five other West Indians and three Canadian women. The men were well dressed, and the women looked healthy and young and vibrant in the way Canadian women just out of their teens look: legs strong and breasts full, and with a glow on their cheeks, like young willing fulfilling women.

Boysie remains quiet, more than being silent; for he feels uneasy being so close to these young West Indians; and he feels suddenly old and useless because of what he knows about himself and his marriage; and he sees these West Indians, silent, and baiting, waiting for him to say something (or even look) about their women, or about the way they are dressed; for they are young and strong, wearing mod fashions, pimpish and expensive, and in their manner is the cockiness of the university
student, assurance in this cold elevator, of exactly where they are going in this country. This assurance seems to exude from them the closer they stand to the women and when the women touch them in simple loving gestures. Nobody is talking now. But the whirring of the unoiled movement up, some of them trying to ignore the movement, or to pretend that they are not bored and uncomfortable — the whirring is perhaps like the constructing of their individual thoughts.

“Imagine, leaving the West Indies to live in a place like this!”

It was one of the Canadian women who spoke. Her voice was like thunder it was so natural and so unexpected. Dots shot her eyes in the woman’s direction, and the woman acknowledged it and smiled. Dots just looked off. Without changing her expression of boredom and discomfort, she felt the atmosphere become relaxed. Somebody sighed, or breathed more easily. And the boredom of watching the floor shift on the illuminated panel above their heads was less obvious.

“What would make people leave a nice warm place like the West Indies to come up to a place like Canada …”

The elevator reached its stop, and they all got out. And they were all going in the same direction, towards Boysie’s apartment. As Boysie reached his door, he fumbled in his pocket, waiting to see where they were going.

“Goodnight.”

It was the same Canadian woman who had mentioned the West Indies. Dots was taken by surprise. The shock opened her mouth, and relaxed her face; and she smiled and said goodnight. The young people moved to the next door and went in. Boysie felt very insecure having them so adjacently close to him.

“Nice kids,” Dots said. She unlocked the door with her
own key (Boysie was still fumbling) and walked straight into the bedroom, leaving the door wide open for him to close. Once inside, he was safe and soundproofed from them. And his protecting apartment soon made him forget them. From the bedroom Dots was saying something about West Indian young men. “Nice kids,” she said, not really talking to her husband. And Boysie hoped to find more in her words than she might have intended, so that he might pick a quarrel with her. “Nice kids. And look so strong. And clean. They make me proud to see them behaving so.”

Boysie took off his winter coat, and threw it on the chesterfield couch. Dots could hear him moving around, just walking and making noise, and she closed the bedroom door because she knew that should he continue walking around and moving around, she would have to answer him. He was like a lion, sparring. He sat down and spread his legs in front of him, and loosened his tie. He had become a man who wore ties almost everywhere he went; he had changed his manner, his manners, his appearance of relaxation and of leisure, in the same way as he had changed his hair style. He had stopped going to the Negro barbershop he used to like so much; had chosen the Black Nationalist barbershop with its flags and posters and colours of black, green and red, its heavy music of James Brown and Reggae and Afros and photographs of Marcus Garvey; but when he found himself becoming out of place among those who were more conversant in the new slogans than in the old black ideology, he stopped going, and went instead to the Italian barbershop just around the corner from where he lived. In the Italian barbershop, he didn’t have to engage in serious conversation or discuss Black Power (the Italians spoke in Italian: and the only word he could understand was “soccer”); nobody talked to him about his race, and he didn’t have to
hide his conservatism on these matters, nor exhibit either a knowledge or a consciousness of them. In the Italian barbershop, he was not forced into becoming a black militant.

He was becoming tired because of all this change in his life. And he was trapped inside his new material success. He was determined now to live within the measure of that success, in proportion to that success. What prevented him was all the noise which he found around him. All this noise made him retreat into the frame of mind and of behaviour that had him now like a man without direction, without any light in his life, a man gone cold.

So much so that now, just past midnight on a Saturday night, he was sitting sprawled on his back on the couch, his necktie loosened, just as he had seen some of the men in the stockbrokers’ offices loosen theirs, and he could think of nothing to make him happy. He thought of the stock market men, how they worked late at night as he moved silently around them wiping off the sweat of their labour and profits from their desks with the chamois cloth, as they counted millions of dollars on small writing pads and adding machines, as he admired and envied their relaxed posture. They did not make any noise when they counted money. He worshipped their secure movements, and he liked the way they could loosen their ties and still command power and respect in their employees. He was sure they commanded the same attention in their homes.

A Scotch-and-water was in his hand, and a filter-tipped cigarette was firmly between his lips, and Dots was inside the bedroom with the door locked and was moving around waiting for him to do something to release the painful pressure that was like a boil filled with poisonous inflammation on both their minds. He had put a record on, and was listening
unattentively to it. “Both Sides Now,” sung by Judy Collins. He had first heard this song about clouds on Bloor Street, and Dots was with him at the time. Now he was surprised to find this album among his collection. He had bought it and had forgotten it. Soon after Henry’s death, he stopped playing calypsoes, and buying them. Instead he began buying records which were more quiet and peaceful. He even thought of buying classical music, and opera, but he never got around to them. He had not often played these “quiet” records, for he didn’t know too much about their rhythms and their lyrics. He had come upon this music by chance, and had liked something about it. He did not know what it was, above and beyond the fact that the music was quiet. He leaned over now, and turned the record up a little more and settled back into the couch.

BOOK: The Bigger Light
9.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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