Short stories, Travel and Health Information
A Short story by Sanjiva Wijesinha
It had been a long time since William had seen Charlden Lodge.
Turning off the main road, he steered the vehicle carefully up the steep drive to reach the sprawling bungalow at the summit of Planter’s Hill.
The magnificent view of Trincomalee Bay was even more picturesque than he remembered. – calm blue sea surrounded by wooded green hills and clothed in tropical sunshine. Perched up here one could savour the magnificent view – or look down to the bottom of the cliff where the waves broke a hundred feet below. After the cold grey winter of Newcastle, this view was surely a taste of Paradise.
William had been looking forward to showing Pauline and young Alastair the home of his birth, where he’d spent his childhood before being unwillingly dragged off to the damp civilization of England.
A white-coated, sarong-clad servant came up to greet them. Seeing William, the dark face became wreathed in smiles.
“Why if it isn’t young Veloo! It’s good to see you again”. He introduced Pauline to his boyhood companion, youngest brother of his father’s loyal servant Raman.
While Veloo busied himself with the luggage, a little dark boy about Alastair’s age came out. William looked quizzically at Veloo.
The servant smiled shyly. “My son. Calling him Rajah”.
When Malcolm Perera had told William that Charlden Lodge was now used as a holiday home for the company’s directors, he had not mentioned that Veloo was its resident caretaker. Yet here was his old playmate Veloo, now grown up and with a son of his own.
“When Malcolm Sir told Master William is coming from London, with Lady and Small Master, then I am very happy.” Veloo led William inside the house. “I am making Master’s old room ready – and I am making pittu for supper tonight.”
“Good old Veloo – you remembered how I love pittu. I hope that Pauline – Lady – will also enjoy my favourite Ceylonese food.”
This protocol of being called ‘Master’ and ‘Lady’ would take some getting used to, William thought ruefully, after having lived so long in egalitarian England!
Having freshened themselves after the long drive, Pauline and William sat out in the garden overlooking the bay. Even the spectre of the huge flour mill across the water could not detract from the sheer beauty of the scene. Veloo brought them tea, in a silver service bearing the White & Waldorf crest – a marked contrast to the Twinings tea bags and Melaware mugs they were accustomed to using back home. After Alastair had gone off to play on the lawn with his new companion, William related the story of Charlden Lodge to his wife.
His father Charles Hampden had originally come out from England to work as a tea planter in the fertile hills of Haputale in Ceylon during the thirties. He had been a giant of a man who ruled his plantation like a petty king, working his native labourers like serfs and producing the highest yields of tea of all the company’s plantations in the region. He did not fraternise too closely with the other British planters, whose proper British wives did not quite approve of Charles keeping an Indian coolie’s daughter as his live-in mistress.
After some years, Charles went back home for six months furlough and Selvi went back to her father’s shack, where in due course she gave birth to a fair-skinned, black-haired baby. When Charles returned, all traces of Selvi’s occupation of his bungalow had been removed – as well, because Charles brought out to Ceylon this time a proper Mrs. Hampden, married according to the rites of the Church of England by her own father, the vicar of a little village called Ockbrook in Derbyshire.
The day after Charles returned with his new wife, Selvi was dead, having drowned herself and her baby in the well behind the lines in which her family lived. Plucking up courage, her old father had gone up to the bungalow and informed Master Charles of the tragedy. Selvi had been his only daughter.
Partly to assuage his conscience, Charles had agreed to take on the old man’s fifteen year old son as his personal servant – and the lad Raman, being quick and intelligent, soon proved so loyally efficient that the household came to depend on him for everything.
Soon after William was born, Charles was promoted by White and Waldorf (by then one of Ceylon’s largest tea planting companies) to work in their head office in Trincomalee. Moving into the newly built company bungalow Charles Hamden had named it Charlden Lodge.
It was here that William spent the first few years of his childhood; to provide him with a companion, Raman’s youngest brother Veloo had been brought down from Haputale. Just as Alastair and Rajah were now playing about on the lawn, so too had William and Veloo played together many years ago.
When William was ten, tragedy struck. Charles died suddenly, bitten by one of Ceylon’s most poisonous snakes, an Indian Krait. He had been sitting out alone in the garden one evening after dinner; it was Raman who had found him, quite dead, with the telltale fang marks on his forearm.
After her husband’s death, Mrs. Hampden had taken her son and gone back to England to live with her parents. William saw little of his mother now – but this trip back to Trincomalee was a sentimental journey that he had promised himself for as long as he could remember.
After dinner – delicious pittu eaten with coconut milk and treacle – Pauline and Alastair retired early, exhausted by the seven hour drive from Colombo. William had Veloo bring out into the garden an armchair – one of those typically user-friendly reclining chairs the locals called a “haansi-putuwa”. He filled his pipe and sat relaxing with the moonlit bay stretching out before him.
“Master will like some coffee?” inquired Veloo solicitiously.
“Yes, Veloo, that would be nice. I don’t take sugar, so just bring it with some warm milk”.
There was much to occupy his thoughts as he gazed out across the silent bay. A few lights bobbing on the water indicated where some hopeful fishermen were putting out their nets, as their fathers and grandfathers had done for the past few centuries. Life as he remembered it here had been always been peaceful.
In a short while Veloo reappeared. Pouring out the coffee, he indicated an earthenware biscuit jar. “I am making Master’s favourite ginger biscuits. Raman showed me how to make – and said I must be making for Master when Master comes back from London.” Opening the biscuit jar, he turned and went back to the house.
William wondered what had become of Raman, the good and faithful servant. Perhaps he had returned to the old plantation in Haputale, once his life’s vocation of caring for Master Charles had ended.
Absentmindedly, William stretched his hand into the biscuit jar.
A sharp pain on the back of his hand made him withdraw it and look inside. Coiled inside the jar, its head raised as if to look directly at him, was a snake.
An Indian Krait.