I remember pushing my head and upper body as far out of the train window as I could. My grandfather would tell me to not look in the direction of the engine. If you looked that way, sooner or later a rock-hard piece of coal dust would come to lodge itself in the softness of your eye. I didn’t pull my head back even when we reached a tunnel with its scary jagged sides mere feet away from the window, and the hot coal-scented gloom would enter my nose, and my eyes, no matter how wide I opened them could take in nothing but the black velvet darkness. When the inevitable cinder found its random lodgement, my grandfather would remove it by pushing my lower lid under the upper one, and allowing my lashes to remove the grit.
My grandfather brought along sandwiches wrapped in newspaper. Because we always took the early train he made them early in the morning, before the sun came up, as soon as the bread man made his delivery. From my couch next to the dining room I could hear my grandfather’s wooden slippers as he made his way up and down the stairs into the kitchen, to bring up the beef curry left over from the last night’s dinner. Thick red spicy sauce clung to the bits of beef and stuck to the butter between the slices of bread with their curved black crusts. I remember the scent rising out of the grease dotted newspaper, and the fragrance of those sandwiches.
This grandfather, who had been an engineer of the Ceylon Government Railway, spent many years driving this very train, an old steam engine called ‘The High-Country Princess.’ He knew all the stations by heart, and the places where the train narrowly skirted a deep precipice. He would point out all the important landmarks to me: Places remembered for being the lookout posts for robbers and bandits and partisans who tried desperately and by ambush to forestall the British conquest of the Kandyan Kingdom, the last to fall, (in 1815) by rolling rocks down the steep hillsides. These places had Sinhalese names which meant ‘Getting out Swords’ and ‘North-forest-hill,’ the hide-out where Saradiel, the Robin Hood of Ceylon, had his cave. There was Bible Rock, Sensation Rock, Lion’s Mouth, Dawson’s Tower, and the many others I can still vividly remember. We would drink the sweet milky tea, brought around by a waiter in the heavy restaurant cups stamped with a crest and letters of the Ceylon Government Railway, and eat fried snacks from the vendors who hawked them at the train stations. I could forget for a little while that I was going back to boarding school, for another agonizing three months of wrenching loneliness and sadness, far away from anyone I loved or who loved me, not that there were too many of those.
But now my school days were over. My widowed grandmother from the other side of the family, whom I called Nanna, lived in Colombo, and now I was living with her. Nanna’s house was at the end of a lane full of deep ruts, which would get deeper and more treacherous with each monsoon season. I had been staying here since I finished school. Nanna was very respectable, and proud of her cabinet of wine glasses and knick-knacks and fading studio photographs of long-dead, formally-dressed family members. Everything in the old house was neat and tidy, and nothing gathered dust as it did in my grandfather’s Kandy home, where no book was ever thrown out, and snake-skins and antlers hung on the walls together with old photographs of hunting dogs and prints like ‘The Gleaners,’ and one in particular, which caused me great anguish called ‘The Last of the Garrison.’ This was an engraving of an old hound lying dead over the threshold of a shelled-out doorway, with a broken musket by his head.
But it wasn’t too bad here. There were diversions – a piano in the living room which had only a couple of dumb notes – and a young girl who lived in the neighbouring house around the back of ours, who filled the late afternoons with the wild romantic music of her piano. During the worst heat which came just before the evening, I would sit on the steps of the algae-covered servants’ bathroom behind the garage and listen to her playing, and my mind would float as far away as the desperate notes could take me.
Nanna’s youngest son, my uncle Walter kept birds in a huge cage on the verandah. They were finches that chirped and fluttered all day, and built their nests in little boxes near the top of the cage, and cleaned their beaks on cuttlefish bones. Still unmarried in his forties, he stayed in the front room, the only one with a sink. My grandmother had the next room, which she shared with me. The two rooms next to them were occupied with boarders: a young married couple who couldn’t yet afford their own home, and a medical student who had the last room next to the bathroom and lavatory. It was clear to me that the boarders all had futures. I did not.
My stomach was still jumpy from this morning. I felt sick and lightheaded and my mouth remained stubbornly dry. I couldn’t quite believe that I had actually pulled off this stunt. Despite the weeks of planning, when it actually came to doing it, things took on their own momentum. It was fairly easy to stick to my decision in the dark early morning, as I felt around for the heavy drawer pull of the bottom shelf of Nanna’s old almirah. Neatly folded in the drawer and smelling of mothballs, I knew I would find the two starched and ironed suits of clothes she had kept there for the last twenty years since Grandpapa’s death. I knew I would find a pale blue long sleeved shirt, only a little frayed at the collar, placed on top of a pair of khaki shorts and a cotton vest with short sleeves, and a pair of white cotton socks. There was also a second set of clothes – a white shirt and a pair of eggshell coloured cotton longs – and a matching cotton coat with a white handkerchief folded in the pocket. On the top of coat was a blue and brown striped tie and an old ‘Peacock’ brand cigarette box that contained the yellowing removable celluloid trouser studs that went with both pairs of trousers.
I took the studs and put the box back. Everything smelled coldly of camphor and old tobacco, because together with the clothes, and my grandfathers brush and comb and a tassel from his coffin, my grandmother had stored Grandpapa’s pipe. I hesitated before coming to a decision: Even though everyone in my family including my aunt Lennie, my father’s older sister, had the same height and build right down to the skinny legs and flat backsides. I didn’t want to chance it with the longs, in case they weren’t exactly the right length. I knew the shorts would do fine. Even if they didn’t exactly fit, it wouldn’t matter. There was no required length of planters’ shorts. They could be anywhere from an inch to three inches above the knee: But I took both shirts and the vest.
The morning was cold, and grew colder as I bathed in the servants’ bathroom around the back of the house shivering as I poured the buckets of night-cooled water over my head as quietly as I could. It had begun to drizzle. Using my grandmother’s sewing scissors and the small piece of mirror used by the cook for shaving, I began with little snips to transform my head of wet hair. I carefully felt around my head, and trimmed up the back by feel. Then I did the front and sides, stopping every few minutes to wipe the raindrops off the glass. I tried to leave a hint of sideburns in the front. The face that looked back at me from the dark surface was uncertain. It would do. When I shut the tall iron gate behind me the garden was still and quiet. My footsteps made no sound in the damp sand, and the birds on the veranda were still asleep, with the canvas cover drawn down over the front of their cage. I wished I still had my old sweater. Only one house on the lane had a lighted window; the rest were dark, and opaque, their occupants still asleep. Soon I was standing at the bus-stop in the quiet street. The drizzle had made the blue shirt a little crumpled and spotted with rain drops, but the clothes seemed to belong to me, and I thought I seemed quite presentable. The bus ride to Fort cost ten cents.
Taking care to avoid the puddles and to keep my shoes unspotted, I walked the short distance to the train station, which was crowded. The sun was coming up. When I gave the man in the ticket booth my money he barely looked up at me. “Where to Sir”? – “One third class to Kandy”. People milled around the station even though the Kandy train would not arrive for some time yet. They walked around with their dripping umbrellas, or sat on the benches or on their suitcases if they had them. Conversations in three languages swirled around in the watery air and settled like a foggy covering around my ears. I counted out my loose change and bought three ‘Three Roses’ brand unfiltered cigarettes, a couple of toffees and a box of ‘Elephant Brand’ matches from a vendor. I would rather have that than a snack, and it was wonderful to smoke in the open. When the train pulled in, I grabbed a door handle of the first third class compartments to pass me, and ran along while holding on to it, and jumped in. A man jumped in close beside me, brushing my shoulder as we entered the compartment, and we each claimed a window seat diagonally across from each other.
So this was it. This was the something I had told myself I had to do, suddenly the cord that had wound itself around my chest and stomach during the last few days seemed to loosen, and I began to hear myself breathing. More people entered the compartment, a man with a little girl in a red dress and a pink ribbon in her braid sat next to me, and a genteel old burgher couple in front of me. Unusually, the compartment did not fill up. On the other side of the aisle sat a Sinhalese gentleman with a tortoise shell comb in his hair, and from the snatches of conversation I overheard I guessed he was traveling with his son and daughter-in-law. Across from them and next to the young man who jumped into the train with me, sat an elderly Sinhalese lady dignified in her white sari, and a silver clasp pinning it to her blouse where it covered her shoulder. There were no standing passengers, and even a couple of empty seats. The whistle blew, the green flag waved and the train pulled out and soon the moist, morning, smoke-mixed air began to rush past the open window.
She got in at Maradana, which was the next station. The train now stopped for nearly fifteen minutes was filling up, but the seat across from mine still had only two occupants: The very proper old burgher gentleman reading his damp copy of ‘The Daily News,’ and his white-haired, comfortable-looking wife who smelled faintly of 4711 and smiled as she crocheted blue glass beads onto the lace border of a small white doily. We all looked up when she stepped into the compartment. The old man sized up the situation: A young burgher girl traveling alone: He folded his newspaper and moved away from his window seat and took the aisle seat next to his wife. “You can sit here, I don’t like the wind.” He said. She thanked him and took the seat directly in front of me. I smoked my second cigarette right down to where it burned my fingers, and threw the butt out of the window. The whistle blew, the guard waved his green flag, and again the train slowly pulled out of the platform with many metallic groans and shrieks. I looked at the scraps of refuse and paper swirling away from the tracks and fervently hoped that I could leave my dismal prospects to fade away with them into the distance separating me from Colombo.
We were stopped for a long time at Ragama. The small girl sitting next to me was singing a little ditty that echoed the sound of train:“ For the up-country princess, pairs and pairs of silk umbrellas….” She smiled shyly at me when I looked at her, so I reached into my pocket and gave her the toffees. I wished I had brought a book. The old lady smiled when she caught me looking at her. Leaning across the space between us, and cupping her hand next to her cheek in order to be heard above the rattle of the engine, began to speak to me.
“Where are you going?”
“Do you live there? What is your name?”
“I’m from Colombo, but I am going to visit my aunt in “Katukelle.” My hands turned clammy: I hadn’t yet thought of a name.
“Where in Colombo do you live?”
“In Dehiwela – before the bridge – 47th Lane.”
“Son, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Daniel Greve,” I said – using my grandfather’s first name.
“Oh – I knew some Greves – Sam,” she said, tapping the old man’s arm, “Don’t you remember the Greves? Before he died so suddenly I think old Mr. Greve used to work for an insurance office in Fort –”
Not waiting for an answer she turned to me again:
“My daughter went to school with their daughter Lenore Greves – at Methodist College.”
“That is my Aunt Lennie.”
“Greve worked at The Great Eastern Life Insurance office” the old gentleman said, but his wife did not appear to hear him.
“Oh how nice! She was such a nice girl!” Now her face was beaming.
“That’s whom I am going to see.”
“When you see her tell her that Connie Martyns sent her regards. My daughter’s name was Francine, but now her surname is Vantwest.”
“Tell her go come and visit Sam and me, we live on the main road next to the Girls’ High School. Its the house with the Kohomba tree in front – you can’t miss it.”
“All right Aunty, I will do that.”
I was anxious to end the conversation. I had not counted on conversation, and could hear my voice becoming suspiciously
uneven under the tension. Turning my body away from the old lady and towards the old man who was now nodding drowsily as his head bobbed to the rhythm of the train, I asked to borrow the newspaper. Before I raised it to hide behind and gratefully shield my stinging ears, I saw his pale hands come to rest in his lap against the soft cotton fabric of his loose trousers.
The train got stuck on the track for an hour and a half a little before we reached Polgahawela. Several of the passengers, the ones who were probably close to their final destinations, got off the train. When the Sinhalese gentleman rose to his feet his son handed him a rolled up umbrella to use as a cane, and the daughter-in-law followed them carrying a suitcase. They exited through the door on my side of the compartment, which I held open for them. The young man helped his father and then his wife with the big step down onto the rough stones beside the track, and when soon thereafter the man sitting next to me climbed down the steps, I handed the little girl down to him. All five began to walk towards the station, perhaps to catch a goods train later on in the day or maybe to take a bus. They all had a purpose, or so it seemed to me. The train continued, and as it pulled into Labugolla station, the old Sinhalese lady carefully prepared a small chew of betel and placed it in her mouth. She rearranged the newspaper-wrapped packages in her straw bag and walked across to the door. Softly she said, “May you attain merit Sir” when I handed her bag to her on the platform.
We were now in the mountains, and the locomotive was straining to climb the steep gradient of the tracks. Mrs. Martyns set her crocheting aside and unwrapped a newspaper package and produced sandwiches. As I handed back “The Daily News” to Mr. Martyns’s I felt the smooth papery touch of his hand. He took the paper and began to read the last page.
“Old Henry Toussaint has died,” He said to his wife as she handed him a sandwich. She handed me one as well, and I took it gratefully. I hadn’t expected to be hungry. “Thank you, Aunty, Corned beef – how nice!”
She demurred at the same offer. “Eat a little bit child, we won’t always get this kind of food now that the war is over.”
The old man was holding his sandwich in one hand still looking at the last page of the newspaper. He cleared his throat slowly.
“Do you remember Henry? He used to work in the mercantile building with Fred.”
“Of course I remember Henry.” She nodded her head and raised her eyebrows while brushing the crumbs from her dress.
“He used to visit our house in Kolpetty and bring us guavas from his garden. I can’t believe he is dead. How did he die? How old was he?”
“Probably old age. It says here he went in his sleep. Eighty-three I think.”
“Can’t be that old!”
“Yes. That old. Now we are all old. That was before the first war, when you knew him.”
“What was his wife’s name? Do you remember?”
Thoughtfully he raised his eyes to the soot-stained roof of the carriage. His shirt collar slid down his skinny neck, and he lifted a blue-veined hand to slowly stroke his chin.
“Eunice Decker I think. Her people came from Matale.”
Mrs. Martyns picked up her doily. “We must send a telegram when we reach home.”
But Mr. Martyns was looking out the window and appeared not to hear her. The train lurched to a start, and we were off again.The conversation kept winding around, easy but persistent. I should have known something like this would happen. All the vines and tendrils of the burger community were intricately intertwined. If you ran into a fellow burgher, the chances were that he or she would keep asking questions, like a person anxious to solve a puzzle, until the thread was caught which connected you to someone already known. She was looking out the window at the mountains beyond the border of green along side the tracks. Her face was relaxed and she seemed to be lost in thought. Her slightly waving brown hair was parted on the left and held firmly in a clip, away from her forehead.
I continued to watch her secretly in the dull yellow flickering light that bathed the compartment. Then we entered the Mirigama tunnel, one of the nine or ten pitch black holes basted through the rock along our 79 mile route. When a piece of grit flew into her eye she took out a white handkerchief and carefully used a corner of it to clean it. She dabbed the tears running down her cheeks and looked down at her lap as if she was carefully inspecting the yellow and pink rose print with green sprigs of her dress. Either that or she was carefully looking past them to my feet, which stuck out on the floor between us. I had shined my pair of brown shoes to a high lustre, but the loose cotton socks had sagged shamefully around my ankles. I was suddenly glad for the soft but visible covering of hair on my shins and calves. I wished I had had a clean white handkerchief.
At Rambukkana we were delayed for another half hour while a second engine was added to the train for the big climb we would have to make into the mountains. Soon we were stalwartly taking the treacherous the curves, but I could hear the engines pushing and straining, and remnants of the large gusts of grey smoke they exhaled overwhelmed the white steam and came streaming past my window. I wondered, what if there was a rock-fall and what if the train derailed on one of the passes – but I told myself that wasn’t likely, and it was only just another appearance of all my other fears in a new disguise.
When we reached Kadugannawa the Martyns got up to leave. I pulled out one suitcase from under my seat, and reached over her to take the other down from the luggage rack. For a moment my arm was stretched over her, and it seemed as if she gave a quick upward glance, but I couldn’t tell. When I looked at my elbow I could see the sooty double tracks smeared from the window. Maybe that’s what she was looking at. I stepped onto the platform with the old couple to say goodbye. Mrs. Martyns was holding Mr. Martyns’ arm. A porter had already grabbed their bags and was racing ahead towards the other end of the platform. With his free hand the old man reached up and stroked my head.
“You are a good boy,” He said.
“Don’t forget to tell your aunty about me, ” She said.
I felt lost when I climbed back into the train. The sound of the train may as well have been a silence for the sense of emptiness that followed me. I felt the worlds within worlds within worlds, and each of those worlds was changing faster than the other, and I was in the midst of them all. I couldn’t bear to look in front of me at the two vacant spaces: such slow going. The newspaper was gone. I had nothing. My neck was aching with nowhere to look except outside the window. In the opposite corner the young man smoked his cigarette with fierce dedication, inhaling and re-inhaling each thick plume of blue smoke which rushed out from his mouth. I wondered where he was going and when he would get off the train. I felt the silence surge and pulse over the monotony of the train.
“I went to Methodist too.” She was talking to me.
“Yes. Those old people were really nice. I think the old lady was a Miss Pietersz. I’m related to the Pieterszs on my mother’s side.” She moved her hand away from the window-sill and moved the hair away from her cheek. She had large hands.
“Then you must be from Kandy.”
“Not really. My dad’s family was originally from Peradeniya, and he used to teach Chemistry at the university, but we moved to Maradana after my mother died. Our family home is in Peradeniya, so we moved back there last year, but before that I went to school in Colombo.”
She smoothed her skirt, which was not in any way crumpled, over her knees. While she was speaking I managed a couple of times to look directly at her face. Her expression was serious but friendly. Then she was smiling slightly, and I could see that her teeth were white and even, except for one on the right side, which slightly overlapped the tooth beside it. That was probably when I began to think she was really beautiful.
I couldn’t help wondering about her – her life, her father, her dead mother, her home. I tried to make a quick calculus of which and what threads could possibly connect the Greve’s to the Pietersz’s, and from thence to her. Inside my head I could see the names and the tangle of lines connecting them, but the lines and letters kept getting separated and reconnected in ways that made my thoughts stutter and my mouth turn dry again.
Why was it this way? Why couldn’t I ever find a single way in which to think my way clearly into a moment or two of happiness. It was cruel that I couldn’t. Irresoluteness was thoroughly dissolved into my bloodstream, already thinned by the blood that had come down to me through generations of clerks and civil servants. Of course that had skipped a generation, but it must have resurfaced in me. I was no Daniel. Life with all its possibilities and impossibilities frightened and dismayed me. The girl frightened me as only something filled with careless and unconscious beauty could. I looked at her grey eyes and her smooth skin and I knew now that she would change my life. The waiter with his tray of rattling teacups was making his careful way between the compartments. I wished I could have bought her a cup of tea.
Back at the house on 47th lane they would have afternoon tea without me. I wondered if my Nanna would worry a little as she filled the cups on the table in the back verandah, opening the meat safe with one of the keys on her key chain to get the can of condensed milk. The chickens in the back yard would be clucking and gathering below the window ledge, waiting for their own tea-time snack of the handfuls of paddy my grandmother kept in an old pillow case and would throw to them out the window. She may or may not have discovered that my suitcase was missing, together with a few of my clothes and the few sad things she had saved to remember Grandpapa’s life, a life so uneventful, until that morning in May, when dressed and ready to go to work, he suddenly dropped dead of what my grandmother referred to as “a burst blood vessel.” That was a story she repeated from time to time, about her dear good husband, but I had also heard her allude, though never directly, to the black moods that would overtake him, when he would refuse to eat, or go to the office, or talk to anyone for days on end.
I hadn’t taken any money from my Nanna’s clay till which stood on the bureau in her bedroom. I did take out two Rupees from my own smaller till, being careful to leave enough coins so that my withdrawal would not be noticed or discovered. I didn’t own anything of value, but last week I had sold some of my clothes including the old blue sweater I had outgrown for to the bottle-man for seven rupees. Though we were not poor by the standards of the time, and very respectable, cash money was scarce. As old as I was, Nanna would only give me a Rupee on special days like birthdays, Easter and Christmas, but uncle Walter would give me two Rupees from the envelope of crisp new bank notes he kept for just such occasions. When I looked up from my welter of thoughts the waiter had long since passed us and was moving down the aisle of the train and out of sight.
“What are you going to do in Kandy?” She was straightening the pleats in her skirt. What was the use of speaking? But I made myself answer.
“I’m going to see if I can get a job.”
“What kind of job?” She was frowning now, and interested. I heard my voice answering.
“I don’t know – I could get a job in the an office – or the Kutcherry maybe. I matriculated with high marks, and I know some short-hand and typing, and my uncle is a clerk in an accounting office.” Hearing the words spill out I almost believed it could happen.
“That is nice, but I was thinking you looked like you could be a planter.”
“A planter! That would be a story of rags to riches!”
“Yes it could!” She was laughing a little and wiping off a few drops of rain that blew onto her face.
“Look at you in your planter’s shorts! You almost look the part, and you could even be handsome, except that your socks look funny bunched up like that around your ankles, and your hair is terrible!”
I found myself laughing with her. I wanted to please her, to confide in her, to reveal my thoughts to her. I told her that if I could really have had my wish I would have liked to work on the trains. There had been Greves’s in the railway off and on as far back as 1845 when John Ryland Greves was a goods clerk with the Kandy railway.
The faint sun was dying away. She stood up to stretch and the smoker across the way turned around to look. I did too. She was tall – maybe as tall as I was – That surprised me, and again I could feel a wave of something I could not easily recognise coming over me. It made me want to see into her life. Even though she hadn’t said very much about herself, I could see this girl belonged in her life. I wanted to hold on to that feeling of knowing, so I couldn’t and wouldn’t ask her any questions. I didn’t need to talk much because I didn’t know what to say anyway. I didn’t want her to ask me too many questions. At the same time I was aware of the way in which she was affecting me. I felt myself giving in to the sort of heavy feeling that comes before a fever, when you don’t want to hold your head up and you don’t want anything except to be quiet and still and safe.
“Why don’t you come and see us?”
I wondered if I could really have been hearing this.
“Who? Where? At your house?”
“Yes. My dad and me. You can easily take the train and we can meet you at the station and drive you back to our home.”
“Your dad has a car?” So they must be rich.
“Yes – an old Morris Minor – and it runs most of the time.”
“I don’t know – I will have to ask my aunty.”
It was out before I could stop it. It felt like someone else was speaking for me.
“Really? Even on the weekend? How old are you?”
But it was getting late, and the train would soon reach Peradeniya station: Then Kandy. As I watched the darkening world flying past my window, I knew it was flying past me too. I was thinking now that this was the kind of escape that has no escape. I wished with all my heart that I was someone else: Someone who really had a chance at life: Someone who belonged somewhere safe and secure, or at least someone who had a home, or parents – or even a small job. A line from an old play drifted into my mind. “I am a tainted wether of the flock,” And the thought that six thousand ducats was a king’s ransom.
“I know about you.”
She was looking away from me now and at the man across from us who had lit another cigarette. He seemed to sense her attention and looked up at her, and she nodded briefly to acknowledge him. I had looked at her during this exchange when she suddenly turned and caught my eye. I fought to not look away. She held steady.
“I know your secret.”
She was biting her lip. Her eyes were deep: Sweet and deep as the sky in which I thought the stars must love to lose themselves. I felt my stomach lurch and my hands begin to turn clammy. Then the nervous laughter almost spilled out, at the irony of who had come to judge. But I said nothing.
“Tell me really, what are you going to do in Kandy”?
Against the cool upright of my seat I could feel the dampness on the back of my shirt spreading.
“I really don’t know.”
She nudged my foot with her shoe.
“What are you going to say to your aunt? What do you think she is going to say?”
I thought of Lennie and the serious way in which she said funny things and the funny way she had for saying cutting things, and I felt a little unsure. I knew for certain she would take me in: She had to love me, and we even looked alike, but there was so much that could happen that I didn’t know and couldn’t guess. What I did know was that I just couldn’t go on living as I had been. It was better to die. I was like a candle in my chemistry class, about to go out because it had burned up all the oxygen in the jar. I thought Lennie would know – might understand – that about me.
“She might scold me for leaving Colombo.”
There was almost the hint of a catch in her voice.
“Please come and visit me in Peradeniya.”
I noticed the “please.” It leapt out into the air between us together with the ‘us’ that was now a ‘me.’
“I don’t know.”
“Then I’ll come and see you.”
“No. You can’t.”
She pronounced it in the burgher way.
“And I remember now that quite recently he wrote to my dad and said he was looking for a creeper.”
What was she saying? Was she really saying this?
“Even though it wont pay much you will learn a lot, and you wont need a lot of money anyway, and he wont make you ask permission for everything you do.”
“But they will all find out!”
“Yes, in the end they might: But we could keep it a secret long enough.”
“Long enough? Long enough for what?”
Silence stepped in to make a brief appearance, then the sounds of the train surged back and caught us.
“For us – to get engaged – or something.”
I looked up expecting to see some hint that she was teasing. But she wasn’t. She was serious, and her gaze was fixed on my face.
“I can think up a story. I don’t know what the details will be, but if I have a little time I know could make it all fit.”
“They will know you are lying with any kind of story you could think up.”
“You don’t know me. I have read a lot of books and heard a lot of stories, and all I’ll have to do is chang a few details.”
“What about my family?”
“Who and who is in your family?”
“Just my Nanna and my Aunt Lennie – Uncle Eddie – Uncle Walter.”
After all, I didn’t really have a father.
“Alright! That makes it really easy! We’ll say that your father was a planter and that you were adopted and brought up by your mother’s family. That will make it hard for them to ask too many questions. They will assume that you are not legitimate and that will make them feel too ashamed to ask any questions.”
“Are you crazy? People always ask questions! They ask a lot of questions! – and they don’t stop asking until they have dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’.”
“Don’t be a coward. There is nothing to be afraid of.”
“What about – ”
But she cut me off.
“You’ll have to leave all the details to me. Just let me take care of everything. When I was in school I was very good at writing stories, and I always made them have happy endings.”
“All stories can’t have happy endings.”
“Yes they can. All of them. I detest stories with sad endings. Especially now.”
“Why are you doing this!”
Even I could hear the worry in my voice.
“I don’t know. Maybe its because I like you. Maybe its because I don’t really want to go to university or be a Montesorri teacher or a stenographer, or worse marry someone and have a lot of children – and there aren’t many other things besides that I could do.”
I shook my head and clasped my clammy hands.
“It will never work.”
This seemed to make her angry. Her face reddened slightly.
“Stop jiggling your leg. And stop acting like a child. You started this! You should have thought of that before you started.”
She saw my frightened look.
“Listen to me. We could pretend that you are like my cousin John.”
I looked at my feet.
“Look at me! His mum, my aunty Amy and my dad were on a ship, on their way to a holiday in England when she met this fellow on board. That’s how she had John. When he was born she kept him, and even gave him the fellow’s last name. My dad probably felt guilty, so he helped her with everything. He sent John to Trinity College, and found him a job even though he didn’t bother to matriculate.”
“Where is your cousin now?”
“He is on an estate in Uva. He is also a planter. He has a wife and two kids and a car and my aunt lives with them, and she and John’s wife get along and no one ever says anything about his past. See? A happy ending.”
A whole shimmering world built itself before my eyes, of hand cut-lawns and rose gardens and hydrangea borders: Of mango and mulberry trees and long driveways and cypress hedges: A house with polished red floors and echoing rooms and pictures on the wall and old photographs of dead ancestors. There would be a teak-wood dining table and food served by men in starched white coats and polished brass buttons: A bathroom with an enamel tub and a hot water geyser and of course a bedroom with a sofa and an armchair and a side table with a reading lamp: And of course a bed. That was unavoidable. I had never slept next to anyone before in my whole life. I wondered what that would that be like.
She was repeating herself.
“Don’t worry, I can make everything work out.”
She seemed impossibly strong: So much stronger than I felt I could ever be. I thought of my bed in Colombo, across the room from Nanna. I couldn’t even have my own room because she kept boarders: and here was this girl, deciding her own fate – choosing this thing and pushing the other aside – and in spite of myself I felt a tremor of some feeling that was a mixture of horror and joy. She said it again.
“Don’t worry, I can make it all work out.”
And I could think of nothing else to do with my life than put it in her hands. Only yesterday the truth of that life seemed unbearable – and now I was going to exchange it for a web of lies in which I was caught like a helpless fly. But never before in the world had there been such an intoxicated fly. To do something with my hands which were about to start shaking, I took out the box of matches from my pocket and began to rattle it.
“Look here, pull yourself together and listen to me. I’ll tell my dad that I met someone who can creep for Uncle Peter: We can even say you will work for free. Since you know short hand and typing you could even work in the factory office and help him with the clerking. That would really be good.” She spoke faster.
“I know Uncle Peter has an old clerk called Mr. de Jong who wants to retire. He has a son in Australia who has been asking him to leave his job – leave Ceylon – This could really work! I could come and join you! – And then – ”
She paused for a moment.
“Are you a Methodist?”
But she didn’t answer. She seemed to drift away and I could see she was absorbed in thinking. “That’s good.”
What on earth did it matter whether or not I was a Methodist? What did it matter whether the world saw me as I was or wasn’t? I was invisible. No one had seen me before this. She was the only one who had ever seen me. Here I sat in a dead man’s thin blue cotton shirt and old khaki shorts, buckles pulled tight as far as they would go at the waist, with only a few coins and not even a hanky in my pocket, and she was seeing me and my present, past and future in a way I could never have dreamed possible. Sometimes when I looked at old people I imagined I could see around the corner into the past when they were young. I liked doing that, but I had never met anyone who could grasp and unravel the whole thread of life wrapped around a single moment.
The air outside the window had turned chilly and again the rain had begun to fall. The trees looked wet and glistening in the thick, heavy light. All along the way there had been little cadjan-thatched huts with bunches of plantains hanging from the rafters and men and women sitting beside baskets of fruits and betel leaves and piles of new clay pots. I had watched them with envy, even envying the occupants of the little graves with their cement headstones, that came into view from time to time.
I thought of how in less than an hour I might be sitting down for dinner at Lennie’s table, with the antique Dutch oil lamp shedding its light on the dishes and glasses. I could see the scarred bread-board with its companion the bone handled knife which she kept by her side, cutting off a couple of slices at a time as they were needed. We would have bread every night I knew. No rice for dinner that was Lennie’s way of keeping up the old burgher ways. Then I saw myself sitting with her at the table. I felt like a fly that had flown into a fly-paper, unable to move without tearing myself apart. All the bits and pieces of my past had suddenly become disconnected. The years in boarding school, a father who only left the asylum for a few weeks at a time and then during the term rather than the holidays, my resourceful Nanna making do by taking in boarders and supplying lunches to office workers, mending my socks with the old silver thimble with the holes in it on her finger, and telling me how it had belonged to her favourite aunt, who sewed dolls dresses in the latest Victorian fashions. I saw myself watching her unpick the tacking thread from a hem to save and use again, I saw myself as a child, with my Kandy grandfather who bought me marbles, and thread and tissue paper for kites, and how happiness seemed to appear and disappear and be replaced by pain and emptiness. Now that past would have to be left behind, together with all the scenes that passed by my train window today. How simple and yet how strange life was turning out to be – frightening and mysterious and full of promises I didn’t know could ever be fulfilled.
The train was pulling in to Peradeniya station. She reached out suddenly and grabbed my hand, shaking it hard with both hers, sending a hot jolt of electricity through us both, making us prickle with the sparks. She leaned forward and I could feel the pulse in my neck begin to throb.
“Remember everything I said!”
“Alright. Yes: I will.”
Neither one of us had a pencil or paper, so she told me her address.
“Write to me first and ask about my uncle Peter. Then I’ll arrange things and write back.”
The tension and the excitement inside me rose to such a pitch, I felt everything around me begin to melt and disappear. I could see something reflected in her face and in her eyes, which were glittering brightly in the uneven light of the compartment. The pattern of what life had meant to me shifted and changed like the sudden click of a kaleidoscope.
“Yes,” I said: “Yes.”
I got her suitcase down from the luggage rack and stepped down to the platform with it. A porter came running and grabbed it. She turned away. I got back into the train and stood leaning out of the middle window. I saw a tall older man in a white cotton suit and brown hat come walking towards her. She almost ran towards him. They kissed and embraced each other. She turned around and waved, and I watched her thin straight form move away until it got swallowed up in the crowd. The guard blew his whistle and waved his flag. The train began slowly to grind its tired way away from the station platform.
I sat down, suddenly feeling weak. My legs were shaking and my eyes turned hot and filled with tears. I took out the last crumpled cigarette from my shirt pocket and began to smoke. I began to compose a letter to her in my head, and it was then I realized that I didn’t know her name. A sense of horror came over me and deepened until I felt myself engulfed in it. I thought, this must be what it feels like to die. I could recall every detail of her face, every expression, every mannerism, every inflection of her voice.
But the address had flown out of my mind like a bird leaving its cage.
The Burghers are the mixed descendants of Dutch, French and to a lesser degree, British colonial settlers in Ceylon. They were
an anglicised culture, speaking English as their first language, and were largely employed in the public sector, but also the schools, and the banks, etc. It would not be an over-statement to say they ran the country, until Ceylon gained its independence from the British in 1948.
The subsequent rise of nationalistic sentiments and the shift from English to Sinhalese as the lingua franca sealed the fate of the Burghers, and their displacement and removal as a stable part of Ceylonese society. The displacement, which in fact was an eviction, began to pick up speed in the early ‘fifties, when most of the Burghers began to leave to country and move to other parts of the British commonwealth, chiefly to Australia and Canada.
Tea was brought to Ceylon by the British, in the mid 19th Century as a source of revenue, and a complex sub- culture grew up around the business. Planters were a sub-set of a certain social class originally
consisting mostly of Englishmen and Burghers. Their positions allowed considerable autonomy over the running of very large tea and rubber plantations, and over the labour force (Imported from South India) used to pluck the tea leaves – a highly labour-intensive process.
Most Planters lived in large bungalows built in the style of country houses, and were served by sizable staffs of servants. Most parent companies would provide their British Planters an all-expenses-paid trip to England every ten years, and in time this privilege was extended to the Ceylonese as well.
This story is set at the beginning of the time of social upheaval and unraveling for the Burghers. About forty years or so ago, the government began the processes which ended in its seizing ownership of the tea and rubber estates, and a way of life came to an end, but by that time the Burgher diaspora had been well underway for decades.
A ‘creeper’ is an apprentice Planter.
The picture at the top of the post, shown in lieu of the writer, is that of a girl. She was my Aunt Mone’s school-friend.