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About the Author

Austin Clarke

Culminating with the international success of The Polished Hoe in 2002, Austin Clarke has published ten novels, six short story collections, and three memoirs in the United States, England, Canada, Australia, and Holland. Storm of Fortune, the second novel in his Toronto Trilogy about the lives of Barbadian immigrants, was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award in 1973. The Origin of Waves won the Rogers Communications Writers’ Development Trust Prize for Fiction in 1997. In 1999, his ninth novel,The Question, was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award. In 2003 he had a private audience with Queen Elisabeth in honour of his Commonwealth Prize for his tenth novel, The Polished Hoe. In 1992 Austin Clarke was honored with a Toronto Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature, and in 1997, Frontier College granted him a Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1998 he was invested with the Order of Canada, and he has received four honorary doctorates. In 1999 he received the Martin Luther King Junior Award for Excellence in Writing.

Books by this Author
Choosing His Coffin

Choosing His Coffin

The Best Stories of Austin Clarke
also available: Paperback
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In Your Crib

In Your Crib

also available: Paperback
tagged : canadian
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Love and Sweet Food

Love and Sweet Food

A Culinary Memoir
also available: Hardcover
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A Novel
also available: Hardcover Paperback
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The Austin Clarke Library

The Austin Clarke Library

The Polished Hoe / Choosing His Coffin
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The Question

She and I were sitting on the wooden deck. Thirteen other men and women were in the garden. We were at the house of the woman who had made the deck herself, she told me soon after I had sat down beside her. “Fuck-all job, don’t you feel?” she said to me, as if she wanted to put some distance between herself and the woman. I did not know the woman. “Isn’t it a shitty job?” She had this manner of raising her voice, as if asking a question, even though she was making a statement. Her statements were clear, and blunt, and filled with opinion, and spoken in an aristocratic voice, declarations of confidence.

She and I were the only ones sitting and talking, and behaving as if we had been friends before this afternoon, as if we were now seducing each other with the words passing between us, from one lip wet with the red wine, from her reddened lips to mine, back and forth, but more from her lips. And we knew it. We knew what we were doing.

A small dog was lying at our feet. It was hearing her words about the deck, and the words that sounded like jabs, like sparring, daring and venturing into a relationship – words passing between us. The dog raised his ears once or twice, and then he ignored the two of us. He then looked as if he was sleeping; and then he looked as if he was dead. Or almost dead. I do not like this dog: I did not grow up liking dogs.

But she and I were not, in spite of the words flying between us, building a relationship with those words. Neither the words that were spoken, nor the acknowledgement of those words, had any real meaning. At least to me. It was just talk. It was summer. Strawberries were in glass bowls of sour cream, sliced watermelons like clotted wedges of blood, with small round black bones in them, were in platters with ice on them, and champagne was in the hands of most of the other guests standing on the lawn, amongst the beds of red and pink impatiens. It was summer. And frivolous. And we had time. Although this summer, like all summers, is short. But we had time.

It was as if we were moving over a vast interminable body of water that was blue, with white clouds low over the water, and were taking our time to travel and saunter in our conversation, and make our words have the life of the waves in the tropical water, never-ending in this journey that was meant to be long and logged with pleasure and with curiosity.

“Do you know, I don’t know five of the people here,” she said, and then behaved as if she hadn’t spoken.

But I could feel that even though it was a journey of imagination and not of acquaintance, of getting to know her, and her getting to know me, making up a bed to lie in, it was not going to be all fun and gaiety, placid water and peace. Perhaps it was even one of those journeys with no destination. The words that passed between us, cut off from the rest of the party, in our secret journey were themselves longer, deliberately longer than the words spoken by the other guests who were now standing in knots on the grass which seemed wet, as if they were standing in dew. Some of them seemed as if they were getting ready to leave. But it was only their nervousness and their discomfiture, as if they too did not know any of the other guests. Without uttering a word, she and I knew it would be good if they were to disappear and leave us alone on the deck.

The two of us were going to remain on the wooden deck, with our conversation, with the uneven slabs of cedar, with the heads of nails jutting from the floorboards biting into our thin summer shoes; one woman passed us from the kitchen with a pile of white plates with blue rims, and shrieked, and stopped to look at the sole of her right foot, and saw the spot of blood. She said, “What could this be?” and looked at us; and that seemed to convince us that we were going to sit together on this same dangerous deck, and would see the end of the warm night through the journey of our words. We would be happy, in spite of the lingering dog which has just risen as if from the dead, and has run his tongue over my ankles, and then jumped into my lap. I try to ignore it. This dog cannot think in my terms, may not even be able to think, has no mind like mine. But something about his behaviour tells me that he has a mind of his own. A mind conditioned by the way its owner behaves with it. Who is its owner? Perhaps it is a trained mind, in a trained dog.

This woman I am sitting beside has reddish hair, and when she lifts her glass, I can see thin hairs under her arms, like thin lines drawn without precision; and her lips are full and the smear of lipstick makes them seem wet and red to suit the colour of the wine she is drinking. I can see her legs, for she crosses her legs each time she makes a point, each time she ends her statements with the raising of her voice. If we should stand up, she would reach to my neck. She could be five-foot-eight. Her skin is darkened with the sun of summer in a backyard much like this one, on a chair of unpainted wood and blue canvas, like those that the English sit in in parks. But it is her breasts, and their shape, and their size, which I am always coming back to, as I try to admire them, focus on them, without being caught, and then have to blush about doing this, as if it is wrong, incorrect to fall in love with a woman’s breasts before I know something about her mind.

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Excerpt from Chapter Twenty-One: Audience with the Queen

The sparkling black Mercedes-Benz comes silently into the narrow parking space of the Royal Over-Seas League House, at Park Place, St. James’s Street — a stone’s throw from St. James’s Place — and from the letterhead on the stationery, I read, of the hotel’s pedigree: “Patron H.M. The Queen, Vice-Patron HRH Princess Alexandra.” The Mercedes-Benz is a 2004 model. In the car, is Colin X, a member of the Commonwealth House committee, who will present me at Buckingham Palace, “for your Audience with the Queen.” At twelve-forty in the afternoon, on Monday the eighth of March 2004. The car comes for me at eleven-thirty, to take me to Commonwealth House, to meet the other officers, and to get the lay of the land, so to say; and to have a gin, to settle my nerves, an assumption made by Colin, proven to be correct.

Colin’s right hand is bandaged with white dressing, is bulging, is painful, is eventually conspicuous in the official photograph requested by the Queen, to be taken to mark in history that this day existed, because his little finger was broken in an accident, and had to be broken a second time to get it back in place.

The car takes us through London’s busy streets, to the Palace, passing places I have been seeing in photographs in newspapers and in news on BBC television; and introduced to me first, earlier, in the Island, in textbooks, in Punch magazine, in the Time newspaper, which trickled into Barbados, and in the reading room of the British Council, many months out of date, but still contemporary in a colony; and from the description of these buildings, monuments, in the pages of novel and memoir written by West Indian authors who lived in England from the 1950s.

And then, the Palace. I had the same disappointment seeing it close up, as I had when I first stood in front of the White House, in Washington D.C., looking in. It seemed to me that Buckingham Palace and the White House have a more dramatic and architectural aesthetic power when shown in a photograph, or in a television news report, than they have when you are standing at the wrought-iron gates, looking at them; when you are a tourist. And the disappointing thing about this is that they look more ordinary, and without the power, both real and symbolic, that you have been brought up to think that they have. So, this afternoon, as the black Mercedes-Benz moved toward the entrance to Buckingham Palace, slowing down to accommodate the press of people, tourists come to see the Changing of the Guard, to peer in, unsuccessfully because of the tinted windows, to see who the important personage in the car was, as a bonus for the delay in the Changing of the Guard, I suddenly felt the power of the Palace, and the significance of my presence here. And miraculously, the Palace became grand and imposing, and was like the Palace made out of glass and diamonds in a children’s book of fairy tales, inhabited by a beautiful queen, and it took on a swell-head enchantment from my being so close to its mortar and wrought-iron fence, and its glistening windows and winding staircases made of glass.

The Mercedes-Benz is directed to the main entrance of Buckingham Palace. A member of the Guards is waiting to greet us. I can see the brilliance of his black boots, in blinding shine, equal to the black shoes the Prince of Wales wore the night before. Spit-and-polish, I remember my father saying, as he spat on the thick-leathered ugly black boots issued by the Royal Constabulary of the Island; and when he was finished with them, they were like the ones I am looking at now.

All of a sudden, I am nervous. Has the Queen been told of my cynicism in the title of my memoir: Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack? And if she has, will she mention it, even in passing? But the Queen is a queen, polite, diplomatic, intelligent, wise, and worldly. And I am still nervous. The Guard ushers us to a long couch against the wall, on which are oil paintings, fields and castles and pastoral scenes of English country life; paintings I have seen before, in films and newspapers, and the Illustrated London News magazine.

The colour of the palace is a yellowish brown. But I am colour blind.

A delegation is waiting before us, to be presented to the Queen. Last night returns, with its colours and its races and its beautiful women, and African princes and kings in robes just like the diplomat who introduced me by the wrong name. The King of Morocco! Is there such a title, such a man? But this gentleman stood out in my memory because of the tantalizingly beautiful woman beside him, wife, queen, daughter, or lover?

This same king and his wife are sitting in the delegation waiting on my left hand. And another Guards officer goes up to them and ushers them farther along the long anteroom, on the ground floor of the Palace, and up the stairs, and into the silence, out of sight. Only the paintings, of Sir Joshua Reynolds, of J.M.W. Turner, remain to remind me of the dances and dinners and cocktail parties that have been pitched in this room, years ago.

“When we go in, you will bow. The Queen will speak first. We have ten minutes. You do not initiate any conversation.” It is my friend, Colin, with the bandaged hand, instructing me on protocol.

The blindingly polished black boots of the Guards officer … I forgot to pay attention to the pips on his shoulder telling me his rank; but I think he has at least, two pips. His back is straight. Erect as a tree trunk. Spit-and-polish. And well prepared; well trained; well spoken. And kind.

“The Queen will initiate any conversation. The audience will last ten minutes. Unless the Queen prolongs this audience. You will be shown where to sit by the Queen. When the audience is ended, the Queen will press a button, which is inconspicuously placed on the table beside her, to indicate that it is over. She will stand, say goodbye to you, and you will leave, walking backwards, with a bow …” This is the Guards officer speaking. “Naturally, there will be no photographs taken. Unless the Queen orders one …”

We are led up the stairs at the end of the long room. I pass animals on English lawns and fields; and a woman is walking with a basket in her hand; and the beautiful woman from last night, walking beside the King of Morocco, comes down the dramatic stairs that shine as much as the boots of the Guards officer, and leaves her husband the king and the other members of her delegation, breaking rank, and comes up to me. The King comes too. They congratulate me; and shake my hand; and tell me when I am in Morocco, remember to call on them.

Colin with the white-gloved bad hand knows them. They have come to him, not to me, to pay greetings. But I accept my share, too; for I remember when they arrived in the black Rolls Royce, and about ten men and women, bodyguards crowded round and hid them from view except by those who were entering the same door of dignitaries, which is when I first rested my two eyes on her flowing robes.

We are in a second floor room, a waiting room, with more paintings I have recognized from former times, but do not know the names of the men who painted them, or the names their painters have called them by; and the Guards officer cannot remember either, “although I have seen them many times.” And we sink into this satisfaction and self-confidence, aware that we are in the household of the Queen, for “Her Majesty” — which is how the Guards officer addresses the Queen. “Her Majesty has decided to have your Audience in her private apartment.” This says something. I am not such a commoner that I do not grasp the significance. “And she has asked that a photo be taken of you when you enter,” the Guards officers adds.

Colin with the sprained finger is smiling. He wants to give me more history, and place me in the context of this history. “Very good,” he says, like an Englishman telling you that what you have heard, or what you have just spoken is very good, meaning in the language of an American, or a Canadian, “fantastic, super!”

The only other winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize to have had his audience with the Queen in her private apartment is Peter Carey, the Australian writer.” I know Carey. I met him once at Harbourfront International Festival of Authors in Toronto. I take a cursory glance at my clothes. I straighten my tie. I inspect my fingernails. I pull my socks up. I wet my lips. I hold my right hand in my left hand, not tense; but relaxed. I look at Colin’s white bandage, like a soft boxing glove, and I say, “How’s the hand.”

“Little pain.”

“Good,” the Guards officer says.

And as the words leave him, we are summoned to present ourselves. The door of the waiting room opens, and I hear the yapping of dogs. The Corgis! Did not one of them chew a small dog to bits, recently, in the London tabloid newspapers. I look down a hall, on my left, and there they are, Royal dogs behaving like hungry dogs. There are about four, but they could have been six, all the same size. We are at the door. And everything changes. My world has come topsy-turvily on its head, around one hundred and eighty degrees, in my ’membering journey from the two-roofed and shed-roof, grey-painted house on Flagstaff Road, Clapham, St. Michael, in the Island, in the British West Indies, with its name, “Macon,” on it, to Buckingham Palace, in the private apartment of Her Majesty, the Queen. I know now what it means to win the 2003 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Best Book. And I wonder how long it will take her to hint at the title of my memoir, Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack.

Colin sits across from us, ushered to his seat by Her Majesty.

I sit beside Her Majesty, almost knee-touching distance apart, with the round table separating Queen from “old Colonial” and with the discreet buzzer on the table, to alarm the guards and the Guards, to announce the end, to require a cup of tea, to have a martini brought into the company and the conversation, to say, “time’s up!”

In the presence of kings and queens, as in the presence of dictators and cruel criminals, what is said, either to you, or by you, is not usually remembered afterward, there is no indelibility in those words spoken. The place swallows the meanings of words, and becomes the meaning of the words themselves.

Colin introduces me to Her Majesty, calling me by my right name, Mr. Clarke. And Her Majesty smiles. I take the chance, for she has spoken first, to say, “I was introduced to you, last night, as “Mr. James, ma’am.” And the moment the words fall out of my mouth, I realize how stupid a thing it was to say, when so many other important, witty things could have been said. I could have commented on the Corgis, whose barking and playing I could still hear. The Queen is sympathetic, and says, “Those things do happen.”

I am dumbfounded, can think of nothing more to say, and Colin, his bandaged hand no longer painful after Her Majesty has inquired of his injury, fills the discomfiture of the moment with light conversation.

“And what tie are you wearing, Mr. Clarke?”

“Harrison College, Barbados, Your Majesty.”

“Oh! My trainer, Michael Stoute, is a Barbadian. His father was Commissioner of Police, I think.”

I am uncertain of the word, “trainer,” and I must have shown my mild curiosity, for I take the liberty to glance, most prudently, knowing she will not detect my curiosity, to see whether there is obvious evidence that Her Majesty the Queen of England, has time from her impossibly busy schedule of appointments, with personages more important than myself, to jog around the gardens of Buckingham Palace; or even run up and down the stairs, with the Corgis trailing and encouraging. “Horses,” she says.

“Oh,” I say, “I know Mr. Michael Stoute. He and I went to Harrison College.”

Mr. Michael Stoute was no longer Mr. Stoute, but was Sir Michael Stoute. It was an afternoon, at Bigliardi’s on Church Street, in the company of Barry Callaghan, drinking wine and martinis and betting on the Triactor races, in which Callaghan is a master, the best I know, that the name Michael Stoute came up; years ago. “Ain’t he the Bajan who trains the Queen’s horses? Who won the Derby for her?” This was the man; this was the Knight. Sir Michael.

I take the opening offered me, not deliberately, perhaps only casually, and expand on the history, and the connection, between the Island and the training of horses and knighthoods, and imagine the ring and the sound of “Rise, Sir Austin Clarke.” — if only I liked horses, even to bet on them! I think it was a reasonable expansion on the skeleton of a common history, if not a common culture between Sir Michael and me.

“As a matter of fact, Your Majesty, Major Stoute was the Commissioner of Police, and my stepfather, who was a police constable, was his driver …”

“Is that so?”

“As a matter of fact, ma’am, I had a photo of my stepfather being given a medal, Distinguished Service Medal, by Major Stoute.”


“And the dean of the church I attend in Toronto, St. James’s Cathedral Church, is the brother of Sir Michael, your trainer!” We are, after all, in her private apartment, and the nature of our conversation is relaxed, informal, cordial, something approaching the exchange of ideas between two friends; two old friends; and the demand for formal decorum was not required. And I felt so. And when I look at the photograph she asked to be taken, from her face, and from her smile, a stranger looking at this group of three persons, so diverse, in background and place and position, there is no conclusion that they are not three friends. And you will pardon my impropriety in this expansiveness.

I look at the two fingers on her right hand, touching her engagement ring; as we stand to leave, for she has, without my knowing, without Colin knowing, touched the buzzer on the table beside which we sat, and we stand to leave, and I see the beauty of her yellow dress, which I call gold, and the light in her eyes, expressing some joy, happiness rather, some enjoyment at what is being said amongst us. I cannot recall what it is we were talking about, as we stood, just before leaving, to pose for the photograph. But her visage — I use the word, advisedly — is more that of a happy grandmother, and not the stern, reserved, thoughtful expression she has sitting amongst the members of the 1st Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

We had talked of other things, too: IBM Selectric typewriters as against IBM laptops; and how I had lost the first five hundred pages of The Polished Hoe and went to the grave of a depression; and now the irony of it; and children; and books; and the computer, which we, at our age and with our taste, had not much regard for; and we bid Her Majesty goodbye, remembering to bow and walk backwards; but the length of my courtesy is not imposing, for the Guards officer is there, smiling, happy that the audience went so well and so long; and he congratulates me; and he tells Colin he will see him again, sooner than he will see me, “But who knows?” Colin is walking on thin air, and I am beside him on a cloud of confusion — happy at my success, happy at my recognition, and, at the same, like the victim, like the “old Colonial,” who cannot help but remember colonialism, and who questions the singling out of me and of my work, for this success; wondering if the success is real, if the adoration and praise is honest, when I should be wallowing in the idea and in the event and in the act, instead of being crushed by this historical burden of doubt that Empire and Commonwealth had instilled in me, and in all of us, of my generation.

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