I first met Jay in a church car park off the high road, midway as the crow flies between the mosque and the temple, one June afternoon in 1964; two boys on the brink of a bond that would alter the course of our lives, neither knowing which one would blink first, or fall furthest – nor the cost of finding out. He rode in, hands on hips, freewheeling on the dusty tarmac using only his weight to steer his bike as he leant from side to side. Blue stripy feathers and rawhide tied to the upside-down handlebars twirled in the hot, sticky air; the sun-baked streaks on his proud boyish cheeks shone like warpaint.
‘Wanna race?’ He lobbed the challenge, veering close.
I wheeled around the hooded statue of Saint Thérèse.
‘The scarp: Torrington.’ Jay stretched his long, slender neck – more like a swan than an eagle – strands of damp hair playing across his open face. ‘If you dare.’
‘Been down that.’ From the beginning I lied. Although it might have been the steepest slope in my part of town, I didn’t see why that should be a problem if it didn’t bother him. My only misgiving was the rivalry I felt rising in my chest, seeding trouble.
Jay spun his pedals backwards. A big bowie knife – a real one with an antler handle – leered from his belt. ‘Scary, huh? The graveyard over that wall? Dead men’s bones?’
His lips opened wider, revealing a crescent of awkward adolescent teeth.
‘Nah.’ The word came out wrong, stretched and warbled instead of strong and defiant.
Even if I had ventured into the cemetery and been scared, I was not going to admit it to some maverick floating by – whatever he had strapped to his belt. Jay was taller, probably older by a couple of years – neither of us could tell exactly by how much for sure – but that did not discourage us from circling closer and finding a nervous delight in the novelty of each other. For days, I had been worried by the idea that the more you savour something, the sooner it might disappear, but I said nothing more. I’d learnt young the uses of silence: others would always fill it with the words they wanted to hear, and you’d be let off.
He dismounted and pinned a tightly folded piece of flutter-paper to the rear strut of his bike. He strummed the spokes, then got back on and set off, the wheel whirring as if it had wings attached.
I needed a guide, a hero, illumination; Jay, I now know, needed an acolyte.
At the turn-off, where the big tamarind trees brooded, he stopped and waited for me to catch up. ‘Pedal hard – even if you think you are hurtling. Streamline everything. You have to build up a heck of a lot of speed, like a bullet, to climb up the other side.’ He blew at his loose hair with an upward puff.
Hurtling? Like scarp, another word no other schoolboy I knew would use. I tightened my hands on the rubber grips. He must have guessed I hadn’t zoomed down the hill before but didn’t seem to care that I had pretended.
‘Actually, I haven’t done this before. Not really.’
‘So, you ready?’ he grinned, planting dimples in both cheeks. ‘When you get to the bottom, ring your bell and start pedalling like mad.’
‘Okay.’ I fingered the trigger of my bell, absolved.
‘Right. One, two, three. Go.’
A fraction of a second behind Jay, whose silver bike did hurtle, I bent low, gripping hard, and flew. The grey cemetery wall, stray bougainvillea and mimosa melted into a thin blur. We whizzed past two sun-dipped women collecting water from a standpipe, tyres spraying sparklets, thumbs jabbing tinkle-tankle, flooding the valley with peals of laughter. Then the road reared up; everything slowed.
‘Come on,’ Jay called out from the summit. ‘Pedal harder.’ Even standing on the pedals would not make them go around fast enough. I ground to a stop and had to push my bike the rest of the way, ashamed that my muscles proved to be the dead loss I’d always suspected them to be.
‘Too much, huh?’ Jay called out, his long body slouched in the saddle.
‘Couldn’t do it. The last bit.’
‘You need another gear.’ Jay clicked the lever on the decorated handlebar with his thumb and ran through the changes. He did not mock me. ‘Let’s go for a Chocolac.’
‘I’ve only got ten cents.’ My parents didn’t believe in pocket money and I had to operate on the black market, trading books, selling off Christmas presents, scavenging small change from jam jars. But that unforgettable day, eager and chaste, my finances were in a trough – as were the country’s, according to my maddening father.
‘We’ll take a shortcut.’
He whipped down a small, stony lane that dog-legged to join Bullers Road and picked his way, carefully avoiding the sharper stones. I followed, sticking to the smoother edge. The house on the corner had a garden of pink and purple bordered by bushes with tiny glittery leaves, a hideout for rustlers and outlaws from the ordinary world in which I, too, did not belong. I yearned for adventure, far from my ma and pa, even though I loved them – if love was what I believed it was and had nothing to do with girls and boys.I yearned for adventure, far from my ma and pa, even though I loved them – if love was what I believed it was and had nothing to do with girls and boys.
When we reached the main road, Jay accelerated to top speed again, riding the wave in the flabby ribbon of tar that had softened and swollen in the lazy afternoon sun.
Halfway along, on the other side of the avenue, a red and white striped awning marked the new milk bar – the first of its kind in Colombo – where, I had read in a Sunday ad, you could get a flavour of the future: Chocolac, Vanilac or even Tangolac.
Jay, sidling up to the smart zinc counter, asked the man behind it for a chocolate milk and then turned to me. ‘And you? What d’you want?’
Confused by the heady mix of fresh paint and scented syrup, I plumped for the same. ‘Yeah, me too.’
Something moved inside me, something mysteriously more, that I longed for but could not yet put into words.
Jay squeezed the soft ear of his bronco: the brake handle squeaked. ‘I always come here at five thirty. Mahela’s last customer.’
‘Why so late?’
‘To catch the sun when it falls,’ he sang with a goofy grin.
‘Stick around. I’ll show you.’
No one had ever spoken to me so easily, with such an open heart; the invitation kept ringing in my head. Sure, I’ll stick around.
We stood straddling our bikes: two mustang riders waiting for the sun to go down and the shooting to begin. Jay tall enough to have both feet on the ground; me, a few inches shorter, having to angle my bike and keep one foot on a notched-up stirrup. Both with the same blue Bata rubber slippers to slap dirt and spur our innocent hopes towards a safe corral.
Behind the milk bar a screen of pink oleander marked the boundary of the censored racecourse. Farther in, beyond the clumps of pampas grass, sprouted the metal rods and concrete pods of a new industrial exhibition complex that would soon replace the redundant gymkhana rings, pens and paddocks.
‘You see my little sunbird today?’ Jay winked at Mahela, the milkshake man.
‘That chuti sootikka?’
‘Like a sunbeam. I’ve got to catch him.’
A flash of yellow and glistening purple darted out of a chenille bush and flew over the pampas.
‘There he goes,’ Mahela flicked his dishcloth in the air after it. ‘Off to his girlfriend. Waiting, no?’
I could wait too; most of my time was spent waiting: waiting to grow up, waiting for childhood’s demons to die, waiting for my life to start. Waiting for someone like Jay to turn up and switch on the lights.
When he had finished the last of the milk, Jay pushed his empty bottle to one side and wiped his lips, manfully, with the back of his hand. I sucked the final drops of mine through my straw and did the same.
‘Come on,’ Jay wheeled his bike around. ‘Show you something phenomenal.’
‘Be careful,’ Mahela called out.
Jay led his two-wheeled horse in through a gap in the shrubbery and onto the outer verge of the racecourse; I followed, stepping gingerly between the razor leaves and cat’s tails. Ahead, the unkempt turf curved in an arc around the building works; the flaky white wooden poles of the main track leaning to take the turn.
Jay checked over his shoulder. ‘Another race?’
‘You can’t on this grass.’
‘It’s a racecourse, no?’
‘Made for horses: Arabians, thoroughbreds.’ They were all in my father’s racing almanac.
‘So, you know the genus Equus.’ Jay recoiled widening his eyes in exaggerated surprise. ‘But now, use your imagination.’ Then he mounted his bike and was away before I could show off some more.
Only power and technique, not imagination, could get wheels moving in such thick grass. Jay had the knack. He drew ahead. One of the white poles marking the circuit had come off and he charged through and across the sand track into a bank of green and purple sage. On the other side of the bushes, pieces of colossal concrete macaroni and fattened cement cubes lay scattered; the main paddock had been gouged out.
‘Come up here,’ Jay called out scrambling up to the top of the biggest of the piles of building blocks.
Joining him at the top, I found we were higher than anything else around: the milk bar, the old flame trees, even the grandstand on the far side looked puny in the velveteen light.
Jay oblivious, shielded his eyes and pointed to the horizon. ‘Look, can you see them?’
A seam of perforations appeared in the sky, dot by dot, stitched by the rhythmic flap of black wings, growing larger by the second, blotching the amber sky in dark puffs with every beat.
‘What are they?’
‘Bats. Amazing, no? Every evening they come this way. Two by two, in one beautiful straight line.’
‘It’s a formation. Like bombers going on a raid.’ I’d never noticed them before.
‘There are always two at the head. I wonder how long a pair lasts.’
I stole a glance at him, wondering what he meant. Was any join also a potential fault line? At home, between my parents, small differences quickly grew large, needles turned to spikes.
‘Is the feeding ground nearby?’ I was keen to show we had a common interest.
‘If we follow them, we’ll find out.’
‘It’ll be too dark soon.’
‘We could start over in Havelock Town tomorrow,’ I suggested, surprising myself. ‘The grounds there.’
‘Yeah?’ The peaks of his cheekbones softened in the light of the sinking red sun.
‘Sure.’ I tried to absorb the glow. ‘I live that side, on Grebe
Road.’ Halfway to nowhere, until now.
‘Corner of Dickman’s Road, same time tomorrow then?’
‘Okay.’ I kept my voice steady, avoiding any thought of what might happen if he were not to appear.
Inside our house on Grebe Road, on the edge of Colombo’s newest residential block, the morning sun never reached the breakfast table. Our beige curtains were permanently drawn. The next morning the gloom hung heavier than normal.
‘It is utter chaos.’ My mother dropped the telephone handset back in its cradle and sharpened the dark look she gave my father. Although slight in size, she had a high forehead and a tense mouth. ‘Dilini says no classes again. School closed.’
‘Those madcaps probably think idleness might be the best hope for the youth of today.’ My father dismissed her worries and opened the back issue of Tribune he often returned to in times of uncertainty. He relied on a comfortable compromise between idealism and action which now, with socialism back in the fray, was beginning to show some strain.
My mother, a modern convent girl, preserved a strong orthodox work ethic; her aversion to disorder and need for sanctuary bordered on missionary fervour. She provided both frame and engine for our family’s fortunes. ‘So, what are we going to do about Kairo’s education then?’My mother, a modern convent girl, preserved a strong orthodox work ethic; her aversion to disorder and need for sanctuary bordered on missionary fervour.
My father studied the photograph of Che Guevara meeting our Governor General in his journal: one bearded, the other bald. The Cuban Missile Crisis was over. ‘The boy can read, no?’
And so, they left me to another day of aimless browsing and drove off to work. My father to the Labour Department where he held the position of an amiable senior executive officer and had the dispensation to come home for lunch, and a nap, before going back to the office to analyse columns of fictitious numbers, as he said, while waiting for a peon to appear with the high point of his afternoon: a cup of sweet, milky tea from a tin pot. My mother to Radio Ceylon from where, revelling in the buzz of national broadcasting, she hardly ever returned home to eat.
I finished my Zane Grey and spent the rest of the morning using stolen chalk to connect the random parallel lines and sunray motifs on the back wall of our mishmash of a house.
At lunchtime, emboldened by friendship, I decided to extract some information from my father to impress Jay and cement our alliance; one thing I’d picked up from my father’s ramblings was the importance of firm alliances.
‘You know where bats come from, Thaththa?’ I asked as my father steadily chomped, eyes half closed, in the final stages of the meal.
‘England.’ He splintered a curried drumstick with his teeth, revealing a dark vein of marrow which he then proceeded to suck with severe concentration and a whistling sound. ‘English willow trees.’ He shifted an eye and studied me. ‘You want to play cricket?’
Unaware that we were talking at cross-purposes, I recalled a National Geographic article that recorded the journeys of the tiniest birds – swallows, wagtails – flying thousands of miles, crossing oceans and continents in seasonal migrations.
‘Actually, bats don’t have to be English,’ he added. ‘There wouldn’t be enough trees for all of us from the West Indies to Australia if that was the case. India alone has enough cricketers to denude all the shires of England.’
‘No, Thaththa. Not cricket bats. I mean bats like flying foxes.’
‘Oh.’ He bent his leathery head sideways to catch the sound the chicken bones made as he crunched them.
I gave up and curled up with a second-hand Rawhide Kid. My father, marrow-drunk and drowsy, tried to discharge his duties paternal and political. ‘Enough comics, son. Read Gorky or, if you must go American, Steinbeck. Improve your vocabulary and learn to understand the choice you have. This country is at a crossroads. No one knows which path will lead us out of the quagmire.’
Having made his point, he dug into his teeth with a toothpick. Once his teeth were clean, he called Siripala – who did the housework, the cooking and the driving, when he was not too busy smoking cheap cigarettes – with a single-word command: ‘Take.’ Succinctly meaning that the plates should be cleared. He always spoke in an abbreviated Sinhala to Siripala, as if he had to use a code to speak to a servant in a modern democracy. He stood up and rolled back his shoulders one at a time. ‘Time for a quick kip.’
I drifted in and out of my comic book until Siripala had also surrendered to the afternoon’s stupor. Then I took up my position on the balcony upstairs from where I could survey the road and plot the Wells Fargo route to Sacramento, dream of a life more exciting than one punctuated by my father’s snores.
Across from the house, a large tract of wasteland – a jungle – fenced off with barbed wire, steamed in the afternoon sun, primed for my daydreams of cowboys and cougars.
In the buckskin map of my mind, a serene meadow of tepees and smoke signals began to form in the warm layered air when, across the road, the weekly paper collector, one of the many itinerant hawkers in our neighbourhood, turned the corner and made a beeline for our house. My father hoarded newspapers and my mother constantly tried to flush them away. Siripala would push piles of newspapers out or pull them back in according to who happened to be presiding in the house on the day. Today, the man was early.
Because of the yard-round basket he carried on his head, he could not see me but I crouched low anyway, making the intruder into a gunman with a sombrero and turning his reddish sarong into chaparajos. An unwitting desperado, he lifted the iron hasp of the gate and clanged it, clearly not understanding the risk.
Siripala hurried out, barefoot, shushing to silence him. He pointed to his wrist. The paper collector checked his wrist too. Neither had watches but both pretended their lives blossomed richer than they did. The man patted his headgear and drifted downstream; Siripala retreated.
The realm of make-believe, I could see even then, was not mine alone.
Copyright © 2019 by Romesh Gunesekera. This excerpt originally appeared in Suncatcher, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.