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Authors: Austin Clarke

The Meeting Point

BOOK: The Meeting Point
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Acclaim for
AUSTIN CLARKE

“Clarke makes West Indian speech into a form of music and poetry … tremendously versatile in what it expresses and exhilarating to read.”
The Globe and Mail

“Austin Clarke [is] one of the most talented novelists at work in the English language today.… His fiction is unique, surprising, comfortable until the moment when it becomes uncomfortable. Then you realize you have learned something new that you didn’t want to know — and it’s essential knowledge. And so on you go, alternately congratulating and cursing Austin Clarke.”
Norman Mailer

“Uncommonly talented, Clarke sees deeply, and transmits his visions and perceptions so skilfully that reading him is an adventure.”
Publishers Weekly

“[Clarke’s] characters are so real you can reach out and touch them.”
Saturday Night

“Clarke is magnificent in transferring to print the music, the poetry, the complete aptness of West Indian dialogue. It is comic, it is tragic, it is all shades in between. And as prose it is as near poetry as prose can become.”
Charlotte Observer

“Clarke is a major Western writer.”
Greensboro Daily News

“Brilliant is the word for Austin Clarke’s depiction of his highly ebullient characters.”
Canadian Forum

Books by
AUSTIN CLARKE

Fiction
The Origin of Waves
There are No Elders
In This City
Proud Empires
Nine Men Who Laughed
When Women Rule
The Prime Minister
The Bigger Light
Storm of Fortune
When He Was Free and Young
and He Used to Wear Silks
The Meeting Point
Amongst Thistles and Thorns
The Survivors of the Crossing

Non-fiction
Pigtails n’ Breadfruit
A Passage Back Home
Public Enemies
Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack

Selected Writings
The Austin Clarke Reader

Austin Clarke
was born in Barbados and came to Canada in 1955 to study at Trinity College in the University of Toronto. He has enjoyed a varied and distinguished career as a broadcaster, civil rights leader, professor, and diplomat, representing Barbados as its Cultural Attaché in Washington DC. His many honours include Lifetime Achievement Awards for Writing from both the Toronto Arts Council and Chawkers–Frontier College, an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from Brock University, the 1998 Pride of Barbados Distinguished Service Award and, most recently, the Order of Canada. He is, formerly, writer-in-residence at the University of Guelph, and the 1998 inaugural winner of The Rogers Communications Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize. Author of eight novels and five collections of short fiction, Austin Clarke is widely studied in Canadian universities. He lives in Toronto.

Copyright © 1967, 1972 by Austin C. Clarke

All rights reserved under International and Pan American Copyright Conventions. Published in Canada by Vintage Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, in 1998. Originally published in Canada by Macmillan Canada, and simultaneously in the UK by Heinemann, in 1967. First published in the United States by Little, Brown and Co. Ltd. in 1972. Distributed by Random House of Canada Limited.

Every effort has been made to contact copyright holders; in the event of an inadvertent omission or error, please notify the publisher.

Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data

Clarke, Austin, 1934–
The meeting point

First book in the Toronto trilogy.
eISBN: 978-0-307-36424-1

I. Title. II. Title: Toronto trilogy

PS8505.L38M4 1998   C813′.54   C98-931310-7
PR9199.3.C526S75  1998

v3.1

To
Melva Da Silva
with love;
and to
Robert Weaver

Contents
1
THE EXPERIENCE OF ARRIVAL

When Bernice Leach got the job
, thirty-two months ago, as a domestic for the Burrmann family, she was expected to cook three meals a day. Nothing else. As things turned out, she had to cook only one meal, supper. It was a meal which required a lot of work to prepare. There were lots of snacks for the children, especially on weekends: grilled cheese sandwiches; cheese blintzes which Bernice had to learn how to make. The family drank many bottles of Coca-Cola and other soft drinks, which Mrs. Burrmann called collectively, “pop.” Mr. Burrmann hadn’t the time or the disposition for more than a cup of coffee at breakfast; and this he drank “clear,” that is to say, without cream, milk, or sugar. He would sometimes drink it while standing up; and even when he did sit down at breakfast with his wife, Bernice noticed that his head was always buried in the business section of
The Globe and Mail
, or in some other newspaper of his thoughts. She nagged him for not having a heavy breakfast before going to his law office; and he argued that he was all right, that a heavy breakfast was only for peasants. Bernice would watch him, standing, drinking, and with a tipped cigarette in his left hand; and he would
glance at his pocket watch, and she would shake her head and say, Boy, you sure running your damn blood to water! Mrs. Burrmann would continue to grumble and continue to eat her porridge, her bacon, her eggs and her Ryvita biscuits; and for the rest of the day (between drinks) she would slouch in her favourite couch, reading paperback novels. When the days were long, like Sundays in winter, she drank more and read less. She was at present reading
Herzog
.

There were two children in the household: Serene and Ruthie, healthy and red, the only persons who had three square meals a day. Bernice made herself four: tea, breakfast, lunch and dinner.

But time passed, and Mrs. Burrmann got used to Bernice, and to her singing in the kitchen. And Mrs. Burrmann overcame her earlier reservations about having Bernice’s black hands touch her white bed linen and her silver cutlery. She grew accustomed to Bernice; and permitted her to graduate from merely preparing meals to serving them at table. But Bernice very often wondered why Mrs. Burrmann wanted a servant: she was such a diligent housewife — and this in spite of the novels and the whiskey. The way she could plan the household expenses for a month; sometimes cook a four-course meal and attend to the children, and still find time to have a nap in the afternoon, convinced Bernice that Mrs. Burrmann was a better domestic than she. Bernice did find out, later, why she was ever engaged: it was during a husband-and-wife bout of secrecy and whispering, when the word “treatment” was dropped. Apparently, Mrs. Burrmann was taking “treatment” for something; and Bernice began to notice her leaving the house, every Wednesday afternoon at a quarter to two, punctually as a bill collector.

She began to handle Mrs. Burrmann’s Royal Doulton chinaware, with its golden wheat sheaf stamped in the middle, as if it belonged to her. With her own two black hands, she would tuck the lily-white linen bibs under the chins of Serene and Ruthie, who were seven and five respectively. She began to move like a conqueror round the table, and about the house.

There were many parties: sherry parties; wine and cheese parties; cocktail parties, masquerade parties, and dinner parties. Bernice liked the parties which were usually attended by a jolly, prosperous man named Silverstein who revelled in hilarious, dirty jokes, and jokes about the Jews. But at these parties to which Mrs. Burrmann insisted on inviting many artistic-looking men and women, and some radio producers of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Mr. Burrmann behaved as if he were one of the invited guests. His wife would be domineering and distant; sophisticated and arrogant, giving the guests the impression that she was the artistic one in the family; the cultured one. It was so obvious that Bernice could not help noticing it; and soon, the guests themselves started talking about it. Mrs. Burrmann was the boss in the household. She had come from a very rich and respectable Jewish home, “one of north America’s best
diasporas
,” as she liked to say at parties. Mr. Burrmann was the poor Jew, who had brains, but no social acceptability. Mrs. Burrmann had supported him for the three years he spent in the University of Toronto Law School. At this time they were already married and he was undoubtedly in love with her, yet he resented this dependency.

Mrs. Burrmann’s behaviour at some of these parties, and in the home generally, greatly distressed Bernice; and in time she too began to resent her mistress. She could not understand what kind of a wife would hold a party when her husband was
absent: perhaps on a business trip in Hamilton; or in his office or his study, studying and pretending to be sick from the recurrent headaches which Bernice felt were the frustrations of his marriage. For Bernice, failure in marriage meant failure in bed. Early in her employment in this wealthy household, she began to feel the tension, and see the first signs of a division; and so, on more than one occasion, she had to shake her head, while standing amidst the rising evening fog of steam from the boiling pots, and say with some sympathy in her heart, “Mrs. Burrmann, God, you giving that man a dog’s life!”

But Mrs. Burrmann continued to drink; and to read. She was subject to bouts of great affection; and would come into the kitchen and talk about herself, and about the children. And she would say how Sam was so disappointed he didn’t have a son; and how close and fond he was of Mrs. Gasstein’s little five-year-old boy. She would talk more about the children than about herself or her husband. She said once, perhaps overcome by Bernice’s warmth, that sometimes she felt her husband resented her, almost hated her, because, after four pregnancies and two miscarriages, she had not given him a boy child. But it remained a superficial kind of friendliness: a probing, with short laughs and sniggers; and on Bernice’s part, broad smiles like the sunrise. After more than two years of these outings with affection, Bernice never felt close enough to Mrs. Burrmann to tell her that she herself had left an illegitimate child back in Barbados. And in spite of this affection, she always saw herself as a servant; a sort of twentieth-century slave. It was mainly the amount of hard work which reminded her of her status. And also, the small wages.

Relations improved, nonetheless, between the two women. Bernice’s wages did not. Mrs. Burrmann began to feel so much
at ease with “this, this-this —
woman
” (that’s how she first described Bernice to her friend, Mrs. Gasstein) that in addition to having Bernice bath and dress the children, she gave her permission to take them into the nearby city park on Eglinton Avenue, and for walks along Marina Boulevard, where they lived. The children were very intelligent, but not too well-mannered; not sufficiently whipped and scolded to satisfy Bernice’s own principles about bringing up children. The fact that they knew they were wealthy; and conscious of their position in this cadillac-and-fleece-lined, suede-coat-and-fur-and-sable-reinforced section of Forest Hill Village, added to their being precocious in the most embarrassing situations. Bernice was nonetheless very impressed by the wealth of the Burrmann’s. Sometimes, you thought it was
her
wealth as she reminded her Barbadian friend, Dots, that Forest Hill was superior to Rosedale. “Good God, Dots!” Bernice said, one day. “There’s money on everybody’ face and clothes, up here in Forest Hill!” Dots, also a domestic, said the same thing about Rosedale, where she worked.

BOOK: The Meeting Point
9.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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