“O death, where is thy sting?” asked Phyllis of no one in particular.
They were exhausted after the funeral, all these women who while he lived had circled around him like planets around the sun. He had called them his Satellites of Love. They took this death thing firmly in hand.
They chose the coffin – ”Not too flashy, dear, but not too cheap either” – boldly countermanding his order of a plain unvarnished box of mango wood planks. They chose the hymns (“Make Me a Channel of Your Peace”), they ordered the flowers. One of them, Myrna, even cooked the mala batha, the traditional funeral dinner of curried dry fish, yellow pumpkin and hot coconut sambal.
I could not help but wonder what life would have been like had he married her. Richer, definitely; fatter for sure.
I had seen her sizing him up towards the end, when his bones were sticking out through his shirt at awkward angles, like a sort of half-finished Dad that I, his son, had put together at a craftwork session one rainy afternoon. For his part, he seemed sublimely unaware of the absurd figure he cut.
That was the thing about him: he had always been unaware, supremely disdainful of people for whom these things mattered. No, I could not see him married to her. Nor to any of the others for that matter. He was so essentially of that species common to us at the time in that hot steamy part of the world: the unmarriageable man.
So how did I end up then, being his son? Ah, it is a long story. If you will just bear with me these next few hundred pages I will tell you.
They were not young when they met, my parents, both of them in their early forties. Domenica Gaisford, as my mother was known then, was an Englishwoman who met him while visiting a friend in Colombo. It was a long visit – three months at least – and I could not help but wonder, had she come out here in search of a husband?
That was how it was done then, you see. Colombo was a sort of entrepôt of human flesh: the singles bar of the British Empire, the Las Vegas of the Colonies. You met at the Galle Face Hotel, you watched the sunset from the verandah – pink gin in hand – before you crossed the road to St Andrew’s Scots Kirk to sign up, all in the space of a week perhaps. They had a much more constructivist and workmanlike attitude to marriage those days, a professional knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the contraption.
Of course you were in it for the pleasure of the ride like everyone else; but you were well aware of the mechanics purring underneath. And if love happened to seep in through cracks in the machinery it was a delightful bonus, unexpected but welcome, a sweet grease that made the machine run more smoothly.
In the case of my parents, however, there was this one startling and totally inexplicable difference. She was white and he was black: an extreme act of courage I could not imagine either of them being capable of back in the Sri Lanka of the ’50s.
But then, I did not know them well enough, they were only my parents after all. It is one of the tragedies of my life that I was neither old enough nor mature enough to ask my mother about this before she died. I would have been more sure of getting at least a semblance of the truth out of her.
With him, alas, there was no chance. “The Colombo Swimming Club only allowed natives through its doors in 1971,” he used to say. “Barely nine years ago. That is why I don’t step in even today. My friend Bevan, who performed his tap dancing act, wasn’t allowed to use the shower afterwards.”
My father wrinkled his nose. “He had to go home smelly.”
“Natives?” I asked. “Natives?’
“That’s what they called us then, Sanjay. Don’t be fool enough to imagine even for a moment that they think of us any differently today.”
“So of course you went and married one of them.”
“Ah,” he said with a theatrical sigh. “Sleeping with the enemy.” His eyes twinkled, arched with the knowledge of all that he knew, all that I need never know. “You needn’t worry your pretty little head about that. What matters is the now, the present.” He thumped the kitchen table. “Never forget that, Sanjay. The present, the present, the present.’
But I did worry about these double standards. How could he hold such contrary views, even if he were not much different in this from so many Sri Lankans of his generation?
The generation that affected to despise the very people whose manners they emulated, whose accents they adopted, who looked down with supreme disdain upon their fellow countrymen when they failed to live up to those exacting and for the most part imaginary standards?
Of Phyllis he once said, “You know, Sanjay, I could never dream of marrying anyone who had the sort of accent that rhymed “not” with “note” and “dot” with dote?” He shivered slightly.
“Lucky escape,” I agreed. “For her.”
That evening after the mala batha, the Satellites of Love – Myrna, Rani, Phyllis and Kamala – sat around the kitchen table reminiscing, unwilling to leave, even though the dearly departed chief guest had long ago gone up in smoke. They had fought tooth and nail for his attentions while he was alive. It was as if they knew that with him gone they only had each other, that the common enemy was now the world outside their tight circle. It was touching to see them all there, each laying their timid claim, like a wreath of poppies, upon the larger-than-life monument of my father’s existence.
“Of course he was always a little in love with me,” said Phyllis, “that was the trouble.” She coiled and uncoiled her hair, still luxurious after all this time; but her face showed the wear and tear of unkind years, the face of a princess who might indeed have lain asleep a hundred years, though not in the restorative ambience of a fairy tale. My father had called her his Sleeping Beauty. He had not meant it kindly.
As for me, I sat there in silence, with one sentence going round and round in my head like the reverberations of a drum in an empty room. What do I do now? What do I do now? What do I do now?
Finally I could take it no longer. “Ladies,” I said getting up. “I don’t know about you, but I’m off to bed. I’m knackered. Will the last one turn off the lights and shut the front door?”
“Come here, Big Feller,” they said. I went around, kissing each of them in turn. Rosewater and Chanel No. 5, Oil of Ulay and 4711 Eau de Cologne: the collective scent of the mother I had never been lucky enough to have.
Excerpted with permission from The Unmarriageable Man: A Novel, Ashok Ferrey, Penguin Books.
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