Leaving This Island Place

by Austin Clarke

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The narrator, who is from a typical lower-class Barbadian family, has gained a reputation as a track athlete and cricketer at Harrison College (a high school). He is in love with Cynthia, the attractive daughter of the local middle-class rector and a student at Queen’s College. Aware that Barbados holds no future for him, he is preparing to leave the island to attend a university in Canada. Before he leaves, he feels compelled to visit his dying father in the local almshouse. His father is in the section used as a hospice for the terminally ill, a ward that smells of decay and death and whose inhabitants are gaunt and skeletal.

Miss Brewster, the elderly head nurse, berates the narrator for not having visited the dying man previously and for not having brought even some fruit as a gift and, perhaps inadvertently, calling him a “bastard” for acting too proud. Nurse Brewster apparently knows the life stories of most of the home’s residents and repeatedly refers to the dying man as the young athlete’s father. The narrator cannot reconcile the two lives he has led: a favorite of the wealthy, middle-class social set and the scion of a lower-class family of uncertain parentage. His godmother has confused him by telling him that the man his mother had said was his father was not, but had been blamed for his birth, and that “that man was a man”—presumably, in West Indian terms, a sexually active man when younger. The narrator’s discomfort is aggravated by his mother’s refusal to have the putative father’s name mentioned in her house.

The narrator has visited his father surreptitiously in his small shack at Rudders Pasture, on the outskirts of town, where he lived for twenty-four years. The father gave him small gifts of money on these visits, and the narrator discerned his true compassion during these encounters—although he also noticed the nude photographs of both black and white girls on the walls beside pictures that had been torn from the local newspapers, showing the narrator winning track events. The father, described by family members as having had no family and no background, appears to be what the godmother suggests, part madman and part genius, but father and son have—despite the son’s superficial rejection—maintained a close bond, even to the extent of the narrator giving him a track trophy. Theirs is clearly a love-hate relationship, although the father repeatedly asserts his paternity in his maturity, dotage, and decline.

On his last visit to his father at the almshouse, the narrator wonders what the relationship was between his father and his mother: Was she pregnant when she slept with him in his shack? Did he rape her? Had she slept with several men—for payment? All that he knows is what his godmother has said, that his mother still hates him and that at school the father’s name has never been recorded. Officially the narrator has been illegitimate and, although among the best in academics and athletics, “only a bas——.”

Although the father, in his delirious state, requests that the son get Sister Christopher from the Nazarene Church to pray for him, the son says that there is no point in listening to a dying man’s talk. His thoughts are with the Saturday afternoon cricket matches, the wealthy middle-class girls who attend them, the theater matinees, the walks in the park—with the life that he aspires to rather than that from which he has come. He would like to play at the Garrison Savannah Tennis Club as a member rather than work as a ballboy there or a...

(This entire section contains 916 words.)

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gardener for some white family. He sees emigration and education as the only solution to his situation, for he has been unable to rise in the island despite his obvious strengths: Just as his father has been tormented and repeatedly imprisoned by Barrabas, the police officer, the narrator has been imprisoned by the island society.

Amid the small talk at a farewell party for him, the narrator recalls his reception at the rectory when he went to ask that a canon perform the burial service for his pauper father: Doors were closed and slammed. He finds no pleasure in the small talk and realizes that there has always been a gulf between him and his acquaintances: Legitimacy and class create impenetrable barriers in small societies.

After the party, the narrator and Cynthia proceed to Gravesend Beach, where they enjoy moonlight and love. She asks that he write regularly, but to her aunt’s address rather than to the rectory, and says that she will tell her father of their love and intent to marry—even that she would like to leave Barbados because it stifles her. In the middle of their conversation, he mentions that his father has been at the almshouse; Cynthia insists she did not know that he had a father and that he must be joking to say that he was indigent and in the almshouse. Before he can praise the old man’s kindness, Cynthia walks away, and they drive off in the rector’s Jaguar.

Although Cynthia pledges to see him off at the airport, she does not come; although she gives him a briefcase as a going-away present and hopes to have her picture in the island newspaper’s gossip column, she does not show up. He hears others’ farewell conversations but has none himself.