I sit on the stoop reading The Island. I practice my English this way, and I always want my son to read the newspaper. And he does. The news from the north is bad. The Tigers have ambushed another patrol, and in the east there is civil unrest and vigilantes. “Praise Buddha that we are in the south, safe from the war,” I say. Vimala ignores me. I add, “And praise Buddha that our son will not have to join security forces.”
Here she looks up, with a tired face. “So you talked to your mahaththeya, did you? How do we know this Mr. Richard will pick him for the scholarship?”
“Don’t worry. I am doing him many favors.”
She does not care what I say. She always tells me to quit touting and to go back to the courts as a translator. But I do not like to hear that, and say for her to stop. She walks back to the kitchen and I raise my voice. “I am talking with him tonight. I might bring him Arjuna’s school records, and he will say to me what Arjuna needs to study or write to get into the school.”
Vimala comes back, smelling of cinnamon and curry. She has begun the meal. She sits down next to me and shakes her head before she speaks in the way that shows she won’t believe me. “What are these favors you are doing?”
I turn the page. I don’t know what to say. I didn’t expect her to come up so close. She knows me too well. “He say he wants to have some fun … so I will advise him to see a movie.”
She shakes her head. “I can’t believe that this big shot will care to see an old movie. Ranil, what are you up to?”
“Why not? He is liking old James Bond movies. How would you know?”
“Well, Ranil, maybe he does. Sitra is coming back from Nu-wera, and Auntie says she is interested in meeting our son. Why we don’t try to invite them?”
“Always with the matchmaking, woman. Why? My son is too good for these low country girls.”
“Soon he will be of age, and he may go astray. But if he has wife, he will have a life to come home to.”
“And what life? To live here and grow cinnamon? To open a shop? He will never be happy. Be reasonable, amma. He will go abroad. Mr. Richard will fix it.”
She shakes her head to me as if I am a foreigner speaking another language. “I still say you should work the courts. This touting is too bumpy.”
“Listen to me. I am respected and get the best jobs. See this Dutch company has hired me. They don’t go for louses like Weiretunge who will sell them village children for a few rupees. Be glad I am a success.” I calm my voice and continue, “Think of how hard it is nowadays. We won’t allow him to join the security forces.”
“And what about my sewing? I can’t do a good business out here. I need more customers.”
“Maybe Auntie will let you use some space in her house in Galle.” Down the road, I notice Arjuna walking home. Then I put the paper down.
She is weary—not from cooking, I think, but from the dreams in her head about Arjuna and this Sitra, or about making a sewing business in town. She stands as Arjuna walks up to us. “So you’ve come home at last.” She points to the well and says, “You won’t come into the house like that.”
His clothes are a little dusty from football, and he brushes aside her complaint, but I say, “After you bathe I must talk with you. I have a business meeting, so I will not take rice with amma and you.”
I go down to the well, where Arjuna has changed into his sarong. The water from the bucket he holds over his head gleams across his dark back and turns the checkered pattern of his sarong darker. I also am in need of refreshing before my journey back to Matara. We take turns with the bucket. I want to talk to him about Mr. Richard’s promise.
“How was the football match?”
“We won, 4–2. Gunasekera got two goals in the first, and I got the third, and Amarasinghe got the last. Did you talk with that American man?”
“Yes. I will be meeting him later.”
He dries his chest with the towel. “Can I come?”
“Perhaps another time. Besides, you must study for the A-levels.”
He grunts at the mention of tests. “I will do fine.”
“Yes, you will do fine in English and Sinhalese, but how about maths? Shall I ask Lenny to help you study? I gave help to his son at the courts.”
He ties his sarong around his waist. “Yes, taththa.” He gargles the water and spits out like he has seen me do.
“Well, hurry. Go to your mother. I will return by night bus.”
I come to the Matara Rest House, but Mr. Richard is in his room, so I cross the entranceway. I see the bulk of Weiretunge coming my way on the narrow porch outside the dining room.
He sees me and laughs in a way that sounds like a stray dog yelping on the beach at night. “Oh ho ho, my chum. You want to see me?”
He seems in pleasant mood, and I think here it will be quiet. I may ask him for help. I worry, but I try to make a face like the stone Buddha standing at Polonnaruwa. “Yes, I was to ask you for Mr. Richard if you could find—” I lean in to whisper, for even I don’t want to hear what I am saying “—a woman.” His breath stinks of toddy and smoke.
He laughs and rolls his head back. He places a fat hand on my shoulder. “What’s this? Has the holy Ranil come to his senses? You can make much money.” He laughs again, but I do not. “My chum, yes, I know just the perfect one. Very young.”
“Not so young, Weiretunge.”
“Leave it to me, my friend.”
Something in my mind wants me to take Weiretunge by the throat and choke to him. The passage is dark, but of course I can’t do this. I can only think, I am glad I am in the dark. I would not want anyone to see me making this deal. Vimala’s face flashes in my memory, and I want to stop the deal. I look away, but I can still smell his breath. My son must come first. I look back at him. “How much?”
Weiretunge shifts his weight onto his heels, and I think he is going to fall back. He rubs his chin and then says, “Five hundred rupees.”
I don’t know if this is right, but I don’t trust him. Besides, it’s always better to go lower. “Two hundred.”
“Oh ho. I can’t even get your Mr. Richard a decent massage for that, Ranil. Let’s say 350?”
I take out a 500-rupee note and say, “OK.”
He gives change and the money is wet, as if he’d sweated on it. I feel my belly crawling up my throat. I have to turn away. The stars, the waves, in the distance, calm me.
“Well, you’ll see. He will be happy. Tell him she will come in half an hour. What is his room?”
“Ah, excellent. The room next to the German by the beach. I have business with him, but he likes boys.”
I raise my hands to block out his voice. “I don’t want to hear any more.”
He grunts. “Well then, I will talk with you after.”
At Mr. Richard’s door, I stop before knocking. I look at the waves. Something glows in them. I peer steadily at it.
“Vosvorescent plankton,” a deep voice from the porch of the room next door says. I am startled. In the shadow, I see the old German dressed all in white, like a ghost, sitting in a lounge chair.
“I didn’t see you there. Are you enjoying the night?” I ask.
“Ven my pal Veiretunge returns. Have you seen him?”
“No, sir, I haven’t.” I don’t know him, and it is not my business. I have already kept Mr. Richard waiting, so I say, “Well, have a good night.”
I knock loudly. Mr. Richard opens the door.
“Ah, Ranil. You’re here. Great.”
His breath smells of alcohol. From the doorway I see bottles of soda water and Johnnie Walker Red on the small round table. The bedsheet is crumpled around the pillows. The smoke is thick. He shuts the door behind me.
I cough. “Mr. Richard, I can’t stay. But I want to tell you that I have done what you asked. You can expect a visitor soon.”
“Fantastic.” He notices me looking at his bed. My face is warm. I look at the carpet and then back at the table.
“I guess I should get this place cleaned up a bit, eh?”
“Would you like me to help?”
“No, Ranil. You’ve done enough. I won’t forget.”
I look into his eyes. He is drunk a little, but I think I can see kindness, like the flash of light I saw in the waves. “I will be on the verandah if you need me,” I say.
I sit quietly, glancing out at the moonlight waves. I search for more of those glowing lights, but can’t see any. Behind me, in the large dining room, a few foreigners and one elegant-looking Sri Lankan couple sit, eating and talking. The honeymooners. I imagine my son, looking sharp and with a beautiful bride, but staying at the famous Galle Face Hotel in Colombo, not here at the Matara Rest House. His life will be better than mine. I think about how Mr. Richard sat here and told me about how he will help my son.
I see the old German walking from the parking lot with someone. It is dark, but as they pass under a lamp, I notice it is a small boy, much younger than Arjuna. I feel sick. He takes the boy into his room. Then I start to feel upset. I think, What if some man did this to Arjuna and there was another man, like me? Wouldn’t I want that other man to do something? But it is not my business. I can only think about Mr. Richard. I can’t think Mr. Richard would be like this German. But the valets will talk. Like this. Once I heard a foreigner say living here was like living in a fishbowl. Then I think how it will be. The valets, the workers, the boss … everyone. If they know about Mr. Richard, then they will find out I helped. I get up.
I find Weiretunge in the shadows of the parking lot. Perhaps because my face is angry, or that I leaned closer to him, he looks frightened.
“Ranil, has your Mr. Richard finished already?”
“How old was that boy?”
“Ranil, it is my concern. We must maintain proper business relations, isn’t it?”
“Then what about Mr. Richard?”
He laughs nervously. “Well, these foreigners, Ranil. I know them. They can’t get the young ones in their country. So—”
I push him back. Holding him by the collar, I turn him to face me. I see the moonlight on the waves in the distance through the verandah behind him. I feel the silver gleams on my face. The light favors me as I ask him, “How old?”
“I don’t know.”
“Listen. I saw the commandant just today, and he say if I need anything, to call him.” His face becomes tense at the sound of the commandant. He nods and I release him.
“Ranil, easy. We are all businessmen. No need to get the lousy government involved, eh?” He straightens his collar, like one who has been roughed up as a matter of habit. “If Mr. Richard is unhappy, I will get older one.”