"Hallo, my chum!” I say to Mr. Richard as he comes down from the first-class carriage of the noon train from Colombo to Matara. But I think maybe he is not remembering to me, or even his promise to help my son go to American university, until he says, “You’re Ranil?” Americans. Always forgetting and always rushing somewhere. Afraid that the demons may inhabit them if they stay so still for a moment. They rush to the nice beaches we have here in Sri Lanka. But then they just lie there in hot sun, sometimes not even taking a sea bath. As a schoolboy, to them I used to sell King coconuts from my father’s garden, or, sometimes, ropes the old ladies twined together in the shade of the jackfruit and palm trees. But Mr. Richard is good. He gave help to a village boy last year for the company scholarship to go study engineering in America.
“Yes,” I say to Mr. Richard. “I am to take you to the Bank of Ceylon and then the fort.” But the bank clarks will be having afternoon tea, I think. What to do? Still, he is rushing, so I must keep up. “They will bring bags to your room, no problem.”
The Galle-Matara road is busy, and the dust sticks and burns to my eyes. Mr. Richard doesn’t seem to be bothered. I am glad for this job with Koopman Bouwer. It is a big project to build a university. Even though they are Dutch company, I was picked since my English is better than other touts. And also, I don’t tout for the evil things like that jackal Weiretunge does. Even if a foreigner wants no drugs, or prostitutes, like that, he is still trying to match them.
Mr. Richard and I go along the road, passing the shops and little hotels, where, in the cool shade, a wind of spicy rice and curry comes. Then I see my friend Sunil, standing outside his Hotel Impala, next to the roti man. My stomach burns for lunch, but I think Mr. Richard is in too much hurry.
“Ah, you’ve got your job now, eh, Ranil?” my friend says, and I nod, looking at the egg rotis. Then Mr. Richard stops and decides to eat. My friend says, “Why not take lunch? Come! Bring your friend in.”
“Yes, Mr. Richard. Here they make very good curry—the best in all Matara.” We sit just inside the entrance. It is a small hotel, maybe only six tables. And it is always full, because Sunil is running a good business. “You like roti? And we can have some tea.”
Mr. Richard interrupts me. “I’ll take a beer.”
“Ehsure.” I don’t like to take any alcohol, so I say, “Sunil, beer for Mr. Richard, and I shall take tea.”
Mr. Richard takes off his hat and wipes his brow with his handkerchief. We dip our fingers in the water bowls. We drink, and then he leans back and shakes his head. He tells me, “Damn, that was a long, stuffy ride. Four fucking hours.”
I wonder if he remembers our talk of last month, when we talked about the engineer scholarship they give to one local boy every year. I told him how it is impossible without money, without knowing a UNP minister, for a village boy to go to university. Our country is always poor. And corrupt. “You remember,” I begin to say, but the food arrives and he stuffs a few fingers full of rice and curry into his mouth. Then he takes a long drink from his Lion Lager. Do they have pol sambol? he asks me to ask them. He likes to take chilies.
“Sunil, chilies having? Please bring.” Sunil brings a plate of red chili peppers and onions. I nod to Mr. Richard and he smiles. Then I say, “You remember we talked once about how your company may take students?”
Mr. Richard spoons much pol sambol on his rice and curry, mixes it in, and devours many bites. He nods his head.
I continue, “My son, Arjuna, is good student in maths. Of course, like me, he is learning English better than the others. He plays football—you say ‘soccer’—for his school, Rahula. You can still help to him?”
Mr. Richard holds up a hand as he drinks the rest of his beer, as if to ask me to wait. “I’ll see what I can do, but …” His voice rises in the way that I sound when I am teasing my son or my wife, Vimala. He places his bottle on the table. He looks around, then back at me. “Several others have applied.”
I am feeling a hardness grow inside my belly. It is good that he is saying this to me. If he didn’t, then perhaps it would mean he wouldn’t care. But still I wonder what I must do. Mr. Richard finishes eating, then tells me about his trip to Thailand, and a smile comes to his face. I think he is remembering some girl. I nod, but do not listen. I am thinking about how I promised Arjuna to get this chance. He is excited for it. But Vimala wants only for him to stay here with a traditional life. She does not like for me to promise him if I can’t be sure. Mr. Richard says the project is behind, and then he looks at me as if remembering something, but he asks me only if his boss, Mr. Squire, has come back from London. I tell him yes and then ask, “Do you have family?”
“She’s 15 next month.”
I want to ask about his wife, but with Americans, who knows. We like to ask many questions about family, wife, children … like that. But it can bother Westerners, so I ask no more.
We finish eating and I tell Sunil I will make him a good price for batik from my brother’s shop, Village Batik, if he gives lunch for free. Mr. Richard puts his wallet back into his trouser pocket. “Thanks, Ranil,” he says.
We go out into a sun that hurts like the flames Jayawardena, the devil dancer, breathes out in one of his midnight village exorcisms. Then we make it over to the bank. It is closed still, and Mr. Richard swears. He says some bad things about the bank and my country: “Damned Lankans. Only good for fucking coconuts and bananas.”
But what about our tea? I think. Our beaches? Our mountains? The gems? But I know it is the anger. He is from Christian and doesn’t know about the Buddha and how to calm himself. When my boy has gone and become a rich engineer, and then sends for his parents, I will say, “What was listening to a few bad words then, for my son is now an important man?” “Yes, Mr. Richard, we can come back after we go to the fort,” I answer to him. I quickly call over a trishaw; its motor sounds like it has mongoose and cobra fighting inside its green hood. Then we go.
The Matara Fort is not as big as the Galle Fort or Colombo Fort, but it is from the days of the Dutch. I am not as proud as that about the fort, but he likes it, so I tell him about the history. The teak trees, so old and tall. They break up the sun. We drive under their protection. We pass the Matara Rest House, built by the British. Then there is the bakery, and then the temple. I get out first when we come to the front of the fort office, to pay the driver. Him, I don’t recognize. Maybe he comes from Colombo or the hill country. His accent is poor, anyway. Mr. Richard walks through the old door and I follow. De Silva, the guard, salutes him but makes an angry face to me. Mr. Richard tells to him that it’s OK, I am with him. I don’t smile back, though. We Sinhalese should not treat each other as if we hate one another. But there is jealousy. Ignorance. It is bad enough to be fighting with these Tamils in the north, isn’t it?
In the commandant’s office, I am asked to wait in the hall. Mr. Richard goes in and he does not sit down. I can see his silhouette through the smoky glass. He is waving his arms and swearing. The commandant is puffing his bidi. I don’t know why a man of such power and wealth would insist on still smoking local tobacco. He could get American cigarettes. That is our commandant. He must be driving Mr. Richard mad. Then silence.
The commandant speaks, and he tells to him something almost in a whisper.
I wish I could hear.
Mr. Richard says loudly, “Deniyaya?”
I wonder what business they have in the tea estates. Our project is down here. Perhaps they will build something there also.
There is laughter, so at least I’m happy about that. I don’t like the shouting. If the commandant shouts, it is not good for anyone in Matara. He can be like a bully to break up some businesses if he is not happy. Not when he’s drunk, though. Then he is happy. I am thinking, Maybe I should ask Uncle to prepare another bottle of toddy, so I can bring next time.
The door opens and Mr. Richard says “So long” to the commandant. I peer in and say my respects.
“And how is business, Ranil?” he asks me, and shuffles some folders on his desk.
“We are doing fine, sir. Is there anything that I can do for you?”
He looks at me as if trying to remember something he wanted to ask. “How’s your son … What’s his name?”
I look at Mr. Richard, then back at the commandant. “Arjuna, sir. Yes, he is fine. Very bright. He plays football and—”
The commandant doesn’t seem interested but raises a hand and says, “Will he join? He might even get a commission if his grades are high.”
I look at Mr. Richard and he turns for the door. I look back at the commandant. “I think he may go to university, sir.”
The commandant grunts, and then waves me off. I follow Mr. Richard, who comes to one of the lavatories and goes in. I wait in the hall. Americans use a lot of paper and I try to imagine Mr. Richard using a water bowl instead, but I laugh. We return to the entrance and the guard is talking with another so we don’t make any talk with him, but leave. I’m thinking maybe two bottles of toddy; one for the commandant, one for this guard, since it is better always to be on the good side of everyone.
We return to the bank and it is busy, but when the manager sees Mr. Richard, he walks up to greet us. He hopes Mr. Richard had a nice holiday and asks if he has already taken lunch. Perhaps some tea. He nods us up the stairs to the offices and asks me to wait outside. But Mr. Richard says no, for me to come in, and I remember it is that the manager’s English is not so good. I always received high marks in English because I had private tutor. But many of the younger ones, like this manager, are lazy. They want only to learn their mother tongues and only to get the job because of favor. He is Muslim, from Hambantota, so his Sinhalese is also not so good, and he is not any good. He always sends us to his brother’s money-lending business, if we need more help than bank will allow.
In the meeting, what I can get is that the bank has not given its share to the project and Mr. Richard is angry. So many times, the manager keeps interrupting to ask if Mr. Richard wants tea. He doesn’t. The manager has sweat on his head, and he avoids Mr. Richard’s eyes, too. “This is bad,” I say to him in Sinhalese. I tell him he should not be afraid, but to tell Mr. Richard the truth. He explains that he does not know what happened. They are checking the systems. It should have been a matter of time between transfers from one bank to another. He tells me to tell Mr. Richard he expects the money to arrive any day. Of course, he knows, even as I translate this, that telling any Westerner, especially an American, “any day now” is like inviting the yaka-devils from hell to your daughter’s wedding. There will be upset. And I can’t afford to have Mr. Richard get angry just when I need him to help my son. But no need to let this jackal know that. I can pretend for my sake that I care for his business. So, to smooth it over, I say to Mr. Richard, “He says that your money is in transfer. He says the bank overseas had system trouble, but here, Bank of Ceylon is working fine. He thinks in the night it will come. After closing.”
Mr. Richard listens and nods. He takes out a cigarette, thinks to himself, and relaxes. “OK, Ranil. Can’t fuckin’ do much about it, anyway.”
He looks through his small calendar book. I tell the manager how I helped to him and say that he should hurry up. He thanks me. I can see he is happy that no trouble happened with Mr. Richard. He promises to me help in any way, and I say he should go easy on my brother, whose batik business is slow. He can’t pay on his loan yet. He says he will see what he can do. But I remember he said that to me about the loans I’d taken for Vimala’s sewing business. He promised to help, but never did. For two years, I had to work at the courts while also working with Vimala at the Weligama Bay Beach Hotel, doing laundry and cleaning rooms. I tell him my brother cannot do this extra work since he was wounded in an ambush. But he knows this, too. He is not even Buddhist, and yet, because he is in money business, he makes problems for us. In Sinhalese, I warn him that if he does not help my brother, I will tell Mr. Richard the real problem.
In his broken Sinhalese, he swears by Allah that he will help. These Muslims should go back to Malaysia, I think. I follow Mr. Richard down the stairs.
Outside in the hot sun Mr. Richard says, “I’m supposed to be in Galle tomorrow afternoon, 3 p.m. sharp. Can you get me a car?”
“Of course, I can arrange a car for 1 p.m.,” I say.
“Great. Let me buy you a drink. OK—tea, then.”
We go to the verandah at the Matara Rest House, and relax. From our seats we can gaze at the ocean. Here many seabirds are flying around the small island offshore. This beach is not good for taking sea bath. Only some foreigners walk along, and the two Gunasena brothers following them to sell King coconut drinks. This season it is not so busy, because of the troubles in the north that scare away foreigners. Still, the old German who comes every year is in his corner room by the beach. A honeymoon couple from Kegalle, and other local guests, take up a few of the other rooms.
Mr. Richard lights a cigarette. At least out here the wind takes away the smoke. It is good.
“Say, Ranil. I wonder if you could hook me up with some fun tonight.”
“Ehsure. Would you like to see a movie? The Broadway is having James Bond.”
He shakes his head. “No, Ranil. I mean fun, like a woman?”
My heart, it beats against my chest. I am thinking, I cannot do this. But then he may not help my son. Of course, I can find him whatever he wants. No problem. Just a talk with Weiretunge. But then I will be no better than that fat cobra. Still, how can I deprive my son? If this man seeks impurities, then it is for him to suffer. But I promise to Vimala never to work for the gamblers and prostitutes. What to do? “Well, Mr. Richard. You are not tired?”
He finishes his cigarette and flicks the butt over the white buds of the frangipani plants. It bounces on the sand of the parking lot. “I mean later. Tonight.” Then he winks at me and says, “Your boy will be top of the list.” But in his voice I hear that same teasing sound. He motions to the waiter.
I feel he is about to leave me. Perhaps he is irritated. I must think quick. “Yes. I can talk with some fellow about this.” After all, it is known that he has helped the last village boy to win.
He stands and stretches his arms. He yawns. “Great. Why don’t we say after dinner, OK?”
“Ehsure, Mr. Richard. I will go now and come back then.”
At the main desk I write a note for Weiretunge. Just that I need to talk with him. I hand it to the valet with a five-rupee note and say, “I will return after dinner.”
I walk down the stairs and head toward the bus stand outside the fort. I decide to stop at the temple. It may help to make offering. Lord Buddha can help to me. I take my sandals off and walk on the cool floor. I give the attendant one rupee and he gives to me some joss sticks. I light them and close my eyes. The Buddha must hear my heart and knows why I am here. The sandalwood reminds me of my grand-father’s home up in Deniyaya. I am back in his garden with my brother, flinging rocks at the gray monkeys who swing through our mango trees.
I walk to the bus stand. It is a 30-minute ride back to my village. If Mr. Richard wants me to come back after his dinner, I must go home and tell my wife that I cannot stay for rice. Then I can see my son, Arjuna, and we can talk.
The bus bounces over the lot and onto the road. Blue smoke makes us all cough, and the driver grinds the gears as he shifts up. The town passes from view and we head into the countryside, where there are no foreigners. The ride is bumpy, and there are no scenic views. I often wonder what Mr. Richard and the others would see if they came along. Like this. My best part of the day is getting off the bus in my village and walking down the road to my house. Of village life, they never see how we may live, our families working in the spice garden. Yes, they know about the kingfishers and monkeys. They don’t know how we strive daily to make our house clean from the dust, and without electricity and running water, we live OK. But they don’t care. Of course, business is business. And of our traditions, what they do not see. My house was my father’s house. He’d moved down from Deniyaya to work for the British. He grew cinnamon, coconuts, mangoes, papayas, and jackfruits. To this day, my house is the only one in this village, even for several villages around, to still grow cinnamon. But what I like most is seeing all the palm, teak, and ebony trees surrounding my house. But I am sad, because I know the problems Sri Lanka is having may change even these country places.
I am feeling the shame since promising Mr. Richard. It is pain to me. Like this. I know the gods have blessed me with a healthy son, no daughters, and a good wife. What may happen if I do harm? Perhaps some bad thing could hurt me, or my family. Still, not everything is perfect. My wife is always unhappy. She wants to do her business in the towns. Lately she is asking me to sell the land and move to Matara, even Galle. But I don’t like to live in towns. They are impure. The people are sad. Out here the sun ripens our crops, and welcomes the spirits of our ancestors. The shade of our trees comforts us, and it is known that the water from our well is cool and clear. But for my son, I want for him to go abroad. For his age, there is only trouble. The communist JVP here want to get our youth to rebel against the government. The government wants them to join the security forces to fight Tamils in the north. They are both waiting for these boys to come of age to steal them, like robbers hiding in the dark alleys behind the tea shops at the Matara bus stand at midnight.
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.”
I leave him and go to Mr. Richard’s room, where I hear someone inside, crying. It is a man. I cannot hear what he is saying as he sobs. I knock. The door opens and a girl, perhaps just 14, looks up. The light from the room shines around her dark hair. Her large brown eyes look confused, but they are dry. I go in. Mr. Richard is sitting on the bed, in a towel, holding his head in his hands.
I am in shock. I have never seen him like this. I look at the girl and ask her in Sinhalese what she has done.
She looks frightened and shakes her head.
Mr. Richard looks up at me. “Ranil, please, I didn’t want … I’ve got a daughter, for Chrissake.”
The girl flinches out of habit at his angry tone. She tells me in Sinhalese how Weiretunge brought her in and then left before the white man came out from the shower. Then, this white man came out, was drunk, and angry. He talked to her but she couldn’t understand.
I ask if he touched her, and she shook her head. I tell her to leave. She shakes her head. She says she still needs to be paid. I tell her to leave. She shakes her head and insists.
Mr. Richard talks also. Sometimes he is mumbling to himself and sometimes I can hear what he says. “I kept asking her if she wanted to go, but she wouldn’t. I told her no. I told her, honest, Ranil. Like I said, I have a daughter.”
“Sir, some of these villagers, they are poor and have no education. It is a pity. What to do?”
I open the door, tell her that Weiretunge is on the verandah, and she goes out. I also want to leave. Outside is the evening, the waves and lights, the stars and air. In here, alcohol, smoke, and a strange American. I feel as if a hundred scorpions are crawling near my feet waiting to jump on my skin.
But I go to Mr. Richard. “It’s OK, she has gone.”
He swears and mumbles something. Then he says, “Damn country. Can’t even get hookers right.”
I make him a glass of soda water with some lime and sugar. I offer him the glass. “Mr. Richard, here, this will help.”
He pushes it away. He looks toward the table, points to the scotch, and then says in a rising voice, “Here’s Johnnie!”
I do not like to do so, but I get the bottle for him. He is still very drunk. I am afraid of this anger.
But then he looks as if he will cry again. “I said a woman, not a girl.”
I am ashamed because I not only failed, but it was an assignment I did not want. It turned out badly. “I am sorry, Mr. Richard.” I can’t think of what to say.
He grabs the bottle and drinks. He wags a finger at me. “It’s a pity,” he says, and laughs. He looks like he will collapse, but he jerks himself forward. “Don’t think I care about all that. There are some things a man shouldn’t do, that’s all, Ranil. You get me?”
“No, it’s not a pity. I’m telling you now that it’s wrong.”
“Yes, sir,” I look down. I feel like the carpet will swallow me up, so I sit in a chair facing the bed.
“Hell. I guess you just went to some fellow and said, ‘Get me a hooker.’ And then this kid turns up.” He takes a long gulp from the bottle. He is getting drunker.
I feel his eyes on me and am afraid to look.
“Ah, Ranil, it’s not your fault. You’re just doing your job. I ask for a car, you get one. I ask for lunch, you get it. I ask for a woman and, well, anyway. You’re just trying to take care of your family. I know. You’re trying to get your boy into college.”
I look at him.
He looks away from me. “Trouble is, the boss says we have to … how did that pompous ass put it? ‘Appease the locals.’ So that bastard commandant has a nephew in Deniyaya or wherever, and we’ve got to give him this year’s scholarship.”
“Sir? Are you saying you have made your decision? But my son …” I stand up, as if I am going to fight. Why, I don’t know. There is nothing I can do. And fighting this drunken American will make no difference.
“Sit down, Ranil. It’s business. You understand. Squire says we have to do that so the project runs smoothly.” He takes another drink. “Aw, hell. Nothing runs right in this fucking country. Can’t even do a whore right.” He looks at me, and then looks away. He is embarrassed. The boyish look on his face reminds me of the time I caught Arjuna lying about sneaking some of Uncle’s coconut toddy.
I remain standing. Looking down upon the drunken man’s face, I feel strange. This man is so weak, I think. It is sad. Americans. Always forgetting. Always promising something they shouldn’t. Like this. If an American education does this to a man, then how can I want that for my Arjuna? I make a proud face to hide my anger, but I think he sees.
“Ranil, please understand. It’s not my decision.”
At the door I want to stop and tell him hateful things, and use words that he has used all day. But I know he will want to do me favors to get my forgiveness. I won’t waste it. “Your car will be ready for you tomorrow as planned.”
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.