We enter the city of Colombo and are immediately engulfed in trucks, buses, cars and bullock carts. The stench of fish being transported to the market invades our car like a coiled snake, silent yet potent. We hear raised voices, cars honking impatiently, chaos all around, and although anxious about grandmother’s illness, I am excited to be in the big city. We left our quiet home town at dawn.
Approaching my grandparents’ house, we notice the garden edged with rows of white plastic chairs and the wrought iron gates wide open. Dad slaps his palm against his forehead. He drives slowly up the driveway to the house, and stops. His head and shoulders slump against the steering wheel and remains still. Mom reaches out across the car seat and holds him.
“Come Daniel,” he tells me, and we slowly get out of the car.
Aunty Lakshmi, Dad’s sister, quickly approaches the car, and hugs him as he steps out.
“When did it happen?” Mom asks gently.
“Early morning,” says my aunt. “You’d already left home, there was no way of informing you, and anyway it’s a long drive, we did not want to upset you.”
Aunty Lakshmi’s nose is red from crying. She and her husband, Uncle Wilson, remain at the entrance to greet people. Mom slips her arm around Dad and they stay silently together in the kitchen, Dad stares out of the window with unseeing eyes. He shows no emotion. He is dazed, as if it were too much to grasp.
My cousin Sharon, with the birthmark above her lip, holds me by the arm and we slip out to the garden. We caress the flowers that grandmother has grown with love and care remembering how she talked to her plants. Now, who will talk to the yellow roses and the red anthuriums? A fruit from the Jack tree has fallen and split open. It is attacked by crows with relish, their sharp beaks penetrating the soft flesh. The pungent smell hangs in the air.
My grandmother is in a coffin which has been placed in the centre of the living room. The chairs lining the walls are occupied by family and friends. Aunty Seetha is sobbing, which prods Aunty Joyce to a fresh bout of weeping. Aunty Joyce, her makeup smeared, hurriedly rummages in her bag for a handkerchief. Uncle Jayantha is looking down at his shoes, observing them with great care.
Grandfather sits, silently nodding at people as they talk to him, absorbing nothing, overcome with grief. I’ve never seen grandfather like this but this is my first time at a funeral. Grandmother appears different, smaller in her white sari in the coffin, almost a stranger. There are others talking softly, regarding the cause of her death.
I hear a whisper. “Where is Jerome?”
“Who knows, maybe he won’t come.”
“Of course he will. The house, would he not get his share?”
“The other children, would they protest?”
Sly glances are exchanged as my pretty aunt Lakshmi leaves the room abruptly biting her lips, eyes downcast. I overhear her in the passage which leads to the bedroom, complaining to my uncle that these people should mind their own business. I am puzzled about this Jerome they are referring to, not having heard of him before.
Aunts and Uncles come throughout the day, giving me hugs and patting my head they ask me how old I am and comment on how grown up I am for a twelve-year-old boy.
“You must be missing school, no?” says Aunty Noeline.
I nod, not caring about the classes I’m missing. In the midday heat the sari blouses of the aunties are wet with underarm sweat and faces smeared with tears. I avoid the embraces by going into the bedroom and staying under the fan, pretending to be asleep.
I can overhear them talking: “The child is tired, long trip no?”
Aunty Lakshmi’s voice unusually sharp: “I hope he doesn’t turn up here”.
I wonder who she is referring to and eventually drift off to sleep.
A commotion from the group of men at the back of the garden wakes me up. I saw them previously, discretely consuming a bottle of Arak. Simon a neighbor is accusing Dad of keeping Jerome away from the house.
Dad’s authoritative voice is deep and clear: “Take the knife from Simon.”
I quickly slip through the back door just in time to see a scuffle.
“You filthy dog. You’ll get what you deserve. You watch out!” threatens Simon, swaying unsteadily.
I hear another voice: “Get the vagrant out of the compound.”
There are cries to call the police. People inside the house are streaming into the garden. People passing by are crowding in through the gates, others who had left before are returning to investigate.
I am urged into the house by my harried aunt. “Go in, go in, what are you doing here, go into the room and stay there,” she commands.
I am scared and confused. Should these things be happening at Grandmother’s funeral?
I run in and see my grandfather, alone, squatting on the floor, covering his head with both hands, swaying back and forth, softly moaning. The living room is empty except for Grandmother who lies silent in the coffin, no longer in the same bed she shared with Grandfather for the past sixty years.
I crouch beside Grandfather and place my hand in his. Slowly we rise. Still holding hands, we sit beside each other until Dad enters the room. The tears that I didn’t shed before are coming down uncontrollably. I wipe them away with the back of my hand.
Between sobs I choke out, “We must visit Grandfather every month now.”
Dad hugs me and says, “Yes Daniel, we will”.
Dad’s face crumples as he grasps grandfather‘s hand. An unspoken rift is laid to rest.
Nadine Rodrigo was born in Quebec and grew up in Sri Lanka, which has influenced much of her writing. She sees writing like having a baby: you give birth to your story, nurture it tenderly and rein it in when necessary and hope the ultimate result will be splendid.
See Brian Henry's schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Algonquin Park, Barrie, Bracebridge, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Ingersoll, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Orillia, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, St. John, NB, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Windsor, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.