Short stories, Travel and Health Information
A short story by Sanjiva Wijesinha
Preamble: Unlike my last few stories, which are works of fiction, the events in this particular story are essentially true. I have changed some names and places for obvious reasons – but for many reasons I felt that this is a story I had to write in the first person.
I was nearing the end of another tiring day at the Colombo Military Hospital.
We had been working since eight that morning performing medical examinations on new recruits – one of the most mind-numbingly boring tasks that Army doctors have to perform.
Fortunately, testing the eyesight and hearing of the new recruits was being done by my two sergeants – but as the Medical Officer on duty that day I had the task of checking the past medical histories of all these new recruits, looking into their throats and ears, checking eye movements and fields of vision, measuring blood pressure and pulse rates, listening for heart murmurs and lung sounds, examining abdomens and spines – in fact, performing a complete medical examination for each of the young men the Army had selected for training as soldiers and officers.
After you have been doing this for a few days at the rate of four candidates per hour from 8 am to 5 pm with just a short break for lunch, the sheer monotony of the task gets the better of you. I was just waiting to finish for the day so I could get back to the mess to change, go for a run and then relax over a beer before dinner.
I was completing the paperwork for the recruit I’d just finished examining – the one but last candidate for the day – when I looked up to see the young man standing rigidly at attention in front of me.
“You can stand easy” I said, “I’ve finished your examination, so you can go now”.
With a half smile on his face, but still standing at attention, he ventured, “Sir, can’t you remember me?”
I looked closely at his face. Recognition did not dawn – in fact I hadn’t a clue as to who this cheeky young lad could be.
“I’m sorry, but I have no idea who you are.” I replied, perhaps coldly “My name is Major Wijesinha. Who are you?”
“Why sir, I am Sergeant Silva’s son.”
In a flash the memories came flooding back.
“Good Lord, I remember now” I exclaimed “You’re the little fellow who wanted both Vanilla AND Chocolate ice creams!”
“Yes sir” he said, grinning at my recollection of that day in Anuradhapura several years ago.
Then he added, somewhat self consciously, “And now I have been selected to become an officer in the army.”
“I’m very happy to hear this.” I told him. “Your father must be very proud of you. How is he these days – is he still in Oman?”
“Yes sir. He has two years to go before he finishes his contract with their Royal Police Hospital. But he is coming for my passing out parade next year.”
“Well, give him my best wishes when you next write to him”.
I got up from my desk, walked up to him and shook hands. “Thank you for introducing yourself, son. I’d never have made you out after all these years! Good luck with your training.”
“Thank you, sir”.
He stiffened smartly to attention, turned about and marched out of the room, leaving me to get on with the last candidate for the day.
It was about five years previously that I had first met Sergeant Silva’s son.
That was after an unfortunate incident had occurred at the Anuradhapura Government General Hospital. A staff pharmacist had been assaulted by a patient while on duty – and the entire hospital staff went on strike, demanding that the authorities implement better security measures for their safety.
Faced with a situation where the principal general hospital of the province was unable to provide health care for the public, the government called in the army. A Health Support Team from the Army Medical Corps was immediately deployed to deal with the situation. I found myself tasked, along with my friend Captain Tilak Dayaratne and a team of army medics, with running the surgical section of the hospital.
It wasn’t easy, but we accepted the challenge and dealt efficaciously with all the surgical emergencies and operations that came our way.
We had been forced to leave Colombo at short notice – and one morning during my third week in Anuradhapura I received a phone call from Sergeant Silva, who at the time happened to be the manager of our Medical Corps Officers’ Mess
Now those were the days before Automatic Teller Machines and Internet Banking had completely changed the way financial transactions are done, and long before mobile phones and e-mails had revolutionised communications. In fact, those were the days before the Internet even existed!
Sergeant Silva’s phone call (it was a ‘Trunk Call’, made after a formal request to the telephone operator and the mandatory half hour delay) was urgent.
The Officers’ Mess was the home away from home, providing accommodation and meals for Army officers working at the Colombo Military Hospital. Responsibility for managing the Mess rested with a Committee of which I happened to be the Secretary – with the day to day running of the mess delegated to the mess manager. At this time I was fortunate to have the efficient and resourceful Sergeant Silva in this role.
Money to pay our suppliers and run the Mess had to be drawn from mess funds held in a Bank of Ceylon account. The only way money could be withdrawn from this account was by presenting a cheque signed by two designated signatories – the President and Secretary of the Mess Committee.
What usually happened was that Sergeant Silva would write out the cheques, have them signed by me after I had verified the accounts, and then take them to be countersigned by the President, Lieutenant-Colonel Tony Gabiel.
With me being away for the past two weeks and the end of the month drawing near, Silva was running short of money to buy provisions and pay the staff (all of which had to be done with cash, since credit cards and electronic bank deposits had not yet been invented!).
“Sir” began Sergeant Silva, “I need to get several cheques signed by you because we are running short of money. I was wondering whether it would be alright if I brought the account books and cheque book and travelled up to Anuradhapura by train to meet you.”
I thought fast – but there appeared to be no alternative. “Yes, that should be OK because we have no other way to get the money. Have you spoken to Colonel Gabriel?”
“Yes sir. He has already signed the cheques so all I need is your signature.”
It seemed a long trip to make just to get my autograph on a bunch of cheques – but those were different times.
“Fine – use an official travel warrant. If you get tonight’s express, you’ll be here in time for breakfast tomorrow.”
A thought struck me. “Sergeant Silva, have you been to Anuradhapura before?”
“No Sir” he replied.
“Then I’ll organise a vehicle and we can visit the archaeological sites here. We might as well make use of the opportunity.”
The express train from Colombo gets in to Anuradhapura quite early in the morning – so I arranged for Silva to be met on arrival and brought to the camp where we were staying. By the time I’d finished breakfast I found him waiting for me. He was dressed not in uniform but in sober white civilian clothes.
“ ‘Morning, Silva. I hope you had a comfortable trip up here. Have you had breakfast?”
“Good morning, sir. Yes thank you – we have eaten for the morning.”
He opened his satchel. “I have brought the cheques. And I hope you don’t mind” – indicating the young boy who had been discretely standing behind him – “I have brought my son along as well”.
The lad smiled shyly.
“Glad to have you here, son.” I welcomed him. “I assume you too have not been to Anuradhapura before, so we must make sure we show you all the sacred places. What’s your name?”
“Lucky, sir” Sergeant Silva answered for him. “We named him Lakdasa, but we all call him Lucky”
It was a good name- Lakdasa, which translates as ‘he who serves Lanka’.
“OK, Lucky. I’ll finish this cheque business with your father and then we can get moving. We’ll go first to the Sri Maha Bodhi”.
It turned out to be a very pleasant day. Although I had been to Anuradhapura several times previously (my first visit being with my parents when I was about Lucky’s age, and my most recent visit with my wife a couple of years ago) I have always been fascinated by this place, the ancient capital of the Sinhalese people.
Walk of an evening among the ancient temples and shrines here and you feel the spirit of the place. You can draw inspiration from the feeling that, for the past two thousand years and more, your ancestors have been treading these same paths and venerating these same places of worship.
For Sergeant Silva, well versed in the Buddhist scriptures, this visit was in effect a pilgrimage. His young son, with all the curiosity of youth, was fascinated to see the places described in his history books – the ancient Sri Maha Bodhi tree grown from a sapling taken from the very tree under which the Buddha had attained enlightenment, the serene Ruwanveli Saeya temple built in the 2nd century BC and the massive Jetavanaramaya Stupa that rivals in size Egypt’s largest pyramids.
It was late afternoon by the time we returned, and on the way back I stopped at Subhash Restaurant. “Well” I said, as the driver, Corporal Upali brought the vehicle to a halt and turned off the engine and a waiter came out to greet us, “This is the place where you get the best ice cream in Anuradhapura. I’m gong to have a chocolate ice cream cone. Sergeant Silva, Upali, Lucky – what would you like? Vanilla, Strawberry, Chocolate or Mango?”
“Can I have Vanilla, sir?” said Sergeant Silva.
“Chocolate, sir” from Upali.
“What about you, Lucky – vanilla or chocolate?”
Young Lucky was silent for a few seconds – and then piped up, “Uncle, can I please have vanilla AND chocolate ice creams?”
I burst out laughing. Silva looked embarrassed – but when he saw me laughing he too joined in, as did Upali.
“That’s fine, son” I reassured the boy “When I was your age, I too could eat two ice creams at a go. You can certainly have two ice creams.”
After we finished our ice creams, I got Silva and his son two food packets from Subash for their evening meal and then dropped them off at the station to catch the train back to Colombo.
I was confident that Silva would now have sufficient funds to manage the mess – and happy that I had been able to give his son Lakdasa a glimpse of the rich archaeological heritage of Sri Lanka.
After our Anuradhapura deployment I returned to Colombo and went back to my job at the Hospital. Unlike my unmarried colleagues I no longer lived in the Officers’ Mess, but once a week after my surgical operations at the Military Hospital I would come in to the Mess to see Sergeant Silva, check the accounts and stocks with him, sign any cheques that needed signing – and usually have a cup of tea and a chat with him before I went home. We would talk of many things, from children and family values to philosophy and religion. Even though he always addressed me respectfully as “Sir” (as a soldier would a senior officer) it would be true to say that we became good friends. I would often advise him about matters with the benefit of my medical knowledge and he in turn would advise me with the benefit of his years of experience and wisdom.
After some years we both moved on to other postings – but we kept in touch, and when the time finally came for him to retire from the army, he came to see me to get assistance in applying for a job overseas. I wrote out a glowing reference, wished him well – and a few months later I had a letter from Oman to thank me and let me know that he had obtained a good post at the Royal Police Hospital in Muscat.
The Saturday after I met Lucky Silva, I decided to write a letter to my old friend to say I’d met his son after all these years and to congratulate him on the boy’s selection as an officer cadet.
In my letter I gave him news about the hospital and the Medical Corps, about colleagues with whom we had worked and about my own family. I also told him of my plans to migrate to Australia the following year.
Even after we moved to Australia Silva and I kept in touch. At least once a year I would write to him and at least twice a year he would send me a Christmas card and a Wesak card with news of himself and his family. Once he specially wrote to tell me that his son (by then a Captain) had been selected to command the guard of honour for the ceremonial opening of parliament. He even enclosed a photograph of Lucky greeting the President on that occasion.
A year later Silva finally retired from his job in Oman and moved back to his home in Kosgoda. Even from there the twice yearly missives would reach me, keeping me informed about his post-retirement activities and his growing interest in Buddhism.
I was fast asleep when the phone call came– on Wednesday the 13th of September.
It was my father calling me to Melbourne from Colombo. “I have some bad news” he began, “its about your old friend Sergeant Silva.”
Years of working as a surgeon had trained me to go from Fast Asleep mode to Full Alert in a few seconds.
“Has he died?” I asked
“No” replied my father, “its worse than that. His son Lucky has been killed.”
An image of a young recruit in PT kit standing at attention before me floated before my eyes.
“How?” I managed to croak
“There was a plane crash into the Negombo lagoon. He was with his infantry company on an Air Force flight to Jaffna in one of those new Antonov planes when it inexplicably nose dived into the lagoon. They don’t know whether it was pilot error or a bomb- but they say that no survivors have been identified.”
I was silent for a few seconds. “Are you sure?” It is a question one always tends to ask – even if one knows that the call would not have been made unless the caller was absolutely certain.
“I am afraid so” said my father quietly. “I checked with Army headquarters before I called you.”
“How are Silva and his wife?”
“It was Silva who phoned me with the news. He wanted the message conveyed to you.”
‘Thanks” I said. “Give me his number – I will call him. Is it a good time to phone now?”
“Yes. It is about 10 pm here, but he will be up.”
“OK, I’ll do that now. And Thatha – thanks for phoning to tell me”
I phoned my old friend. What could I say to him when he and his wife had just lost their only son, a boy who was the apple of his parents’ eyes? All their years of sacrifice, all their hopes for the future had been destroyed in one plane crash.
What COULD I say? All I remember of that phone call from Melbourne to Kosgoda is that I called – and heard Silva say as he heard my voice, even before I could stammer how sad I was to learn about Lucky’s death “I knew that you would call, Sir.”
When we returned to Sri Lanka later that year, one of the first trips I made was to Silva’s home in Kosgoda.
There was a neat and well maintained flower garden in front of the house – flowers that Silva must be tending in his retirement because he knows that he will never have grandchildren.
Silva came out to greet me as I got out of the car. He looked older, but he still stood erect as one would expect an old soldier to do. The years had treated both him and his wife well. I could not however help noticing the sadness in Mrs Silva’s eyes.
Should I not have expected it? Can parents realistically be expected to “get over” the deaths of sons killed in war?
We sat on the verandah of his house and reminisced, as old friends are wont to do over days gone by – shared memories of people and places, of amusing incidents and old colleagues whom the war and old age have taken away from us.
And we talked at last about his son Lakdasa.
“With my understanding of Buddhism, I have now come to terms with my son’s death” he told me. “I accept that nothing is permanent, all things are impermanent. We must have no attachments in life, because all that we have and hold dear to us are nothing but illusions. As a Buddhist, I know all this – and I accept this.”
But then he turned to me, and I could see his eyes glistening.
“But as a father, sir, am I not less than human if I do not grieve for my only son?”
At a time like this, what could I say?
I could only recall an image of a cheeky young recruit asking me “Sir, can you not remember me?”
I could only remember the face of a little boy asking me “Uncle, can I please have vanilla AND chocolate ice cream?”
And I could only reach out and touch Sergeant Silva on his arm, gently, as old friends will sometimes do when they have nothing more that they can say to each other.
If you would like to read more short stories like this, check out my book Not Our War – available as an e-book from Amazon.com.au – the Australian Amazon site.
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