I was the only one in the lane to be awake all night, waiting. But the past few nights had been unusual. Everyone had been up lighting crackers, talking in happy voices, celebrating. It was like 1996 all over again, like when we won the World Cup and all of Colombo was excited. I almost couldn’t believe it. Not the cricket, I didn’t care about that. This time it didn’t make sense; somehow I wasn’t convinced things had changed. The North and East were quiet; a sheet pulled across their faces. I didn’t get the emails with pictures of the dead. No stories of devastation. There were calls but none from the people who wanted favours. I thought maybe now, all those who’d tried to lay their troubles on my shoulders would shut up.
In the morning the party continued on the street, acchis fed soldiers kiribath, seeyas played rabang, their fingers drumming the cowhide silly. Politicians congratulated the nation, the army and themselves as sarong-Johnnies danced on the backs of trucks and waved flags. That flag – with the lion and its sword against the marrow coloured background – it was everywhere. Lining the streets, sticking out of vehicles, flapping on top of every roof and waving from the top corner of every TV channel. The Perera family next door had put one on the aerial of their car. The Bandaras two doors up had stuck one through the metal grill covering their front windows. There was even one tied to bamboo scaffolding at the building site now owned by a Chinese businessman at the top of the lane. Only the Loduweikes didn’t have one, probably because those Burghers were too old to even know what was happening.
And us. We didn’t have a flag. That’s why I was surprised when Latha found one stuck in between the roof tiles and gutter outside my window. She came with the morning tea, saying, ‘Nona thé.’
I didn’t open my eyes. My headache was bad.
‘Nona,’ she said a little louder. ‘Nona, negitinna. Wedata yanna thiyanawa.’ She put the teacup on the bedside table and kneeled. ‘Nona,’ she said quietly into my ear. ‘Adath wedata yanne nedda?’
I knew it was a workday but I said, ‘Let me be.’
‘Nona, thaama asaneepada?’ She touched my forehead for the temperature with her turmeric smelling hands. ‘Una neh.’
‘Are you a doctor?’
‘Neh, mama condostara.’ The smile showed all her cracked teeth. It was a silly old joke that my children used to make but it made me laugh: ‘I’m not a doctor, I’m a bus conductor.’ Latha was full of that childish talk. She went over and pulled the curtains open. My eyes burned. When they got used to the brightness Latha was leaning out the window. ‘Nona kodiyak demmada?’
I got out of bed gingerly, walked across and looked out. The flag was fluttering lightly. It was a small one, paper and not cloth, not much longer than the length of my palm.
‘Who put it there?’
The woman shrugged. ‘Mang nemayi. Mahattaya-da?’
It couldn’t be Mano. Mano was too lazy. He asked me when he wanted anything done. Couldn’t even make a cup of tea himself. And Anoushka? She didn’t care about such things.
I put on my housecoat and slippers and went around to the front. Reached up and touched the shiny print with the tips of my fingers. I could have pulled it down but then the neighbours might have thought I didn’t support the country. I support the country. I’m proud.
‘Latha, did you see anyone?’
He was the only one tall enough to reach the gutter. Niranjan. Everyone else would have needed a stool. Latha would have needed a ladder. She looked as confused as I was.
‘Who did this?’ I asked her again.
‘We have to find who.’ I went back inside to call work and tell them I was still not feeling well.
Ever since he got back from America he’s been doing things to upset me. He goes round-gahanna and comes back drunk in the middle of the night, gets up late the next day, goes to work and does it all over again. On weekends he goes completely missing or returns just before the sun comes up and sleeps all day. I barely see him. I tell him, ‘Niranjan, what’s the meaning of this?’ but he just laughs, his perfect teeth making him look mean.
‘Where did you go? Why don’t you tell me anything anymore? I was very worried. And you know people will start saying things if you come back so late every night. They’re already talking.’ I tried this often. I showed him the results of his thoughtlessness. ‘Yesterday that fellow who sells lottery tickets near the park had asked Latha if you’re doing “night duty.” Can you believe? What shame! We have to hear things from average people. Think a little before you go and do these things.’
I keep trying; keep talking, hoping something will go into his head; but like everyone these days, he doesn’t listen to me – halfway through my speech he’s already walked outside to look at his car or into his room. That was how he escaped. Sometimes he came back, hands full of dirt and grease and when I said, ‘Niranjan, go wash your hands before you eat,’ he would pick up some food and put it in his mouth. He did these things to hurt me. That flag was confirmation. He knew I was the person who would be affected. He knew.
I ate a banana, gathered my strength and went into his room to see what I could find. It was like a pigsty. Like a cyclone had blown right through. He had left dirty underwear, a sarong and a couple of socks right in the middle of the floor. A shirt hung off the bedpost. A whole lot of clothes, crumpled, sat on the chair like they were trying to become a person. One sock on top of the mosquito net – how it got there, god only knows. Papers and files and books and notepads were all thrown around, not one inch of the desk could be seen. Only the computer was uncovered. Even that was filthy – the keyboard had a layer of brown dirt and the screen was black on the sides. I opened the drawers but didn’t look too much – there was no point. It was full of gadgets and knickknacks – wires, computer things, bead necklaces, gold chains and bottles of deodorant and perfume – so many things I couldn’t even shut it properly. Had to move a few things around and slide it back and forth. Finally closing the drawer I stepped back – as soon as I did that I stepped onto something. It was a packet of chewing gum. And when I bent over to pick that up I noticed a bottle under the bed. I left the chewing gum where it was and got on my knees to reach for the bottle. The label said Bacardi. Rum. I opened it and took a sniff. Fire water. That had to go.
I opened the cupboard and more clothes tumbled out. Took up a pair of jeans from the bookshelf and its pockets were heavy. They were full of coins, business cards, one for a Duminda Samarawickrama and one for Ramona Perera from something called CTP Associates. Who was this Ramona woman? What does she want with my son? I dug a little deeper and found a half-finished packet of cigarettes. That was no surprise – I knew he smoked. He learnt that from his father. But at least Mano did it secretly, elsewhere. Not this boy. He came home, shut his door, opened a window and smoked away. Denied everything if anybody asked. Blamed the smell on a neighbour or a passer-by. ‘What are you telling me for?’ he always said.
‘I wasn’t born yesterday,’ was how I answered that. ‘You must be thinking I’m some kind of fool.’ He made me so angry, burned all the blood in my veins. I didn’t know what to do, slap him like a misbehaving teenager or hit my head against the wall. I took the bottle and the cigarettes and walked out of his room.
Rajith Savanadasa wrote this extract in his time as a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow.
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