Short stories, Travel and Health Information
A short story by Sanjiva Wijesinha
I remember the first time I saw my father cry.
I would have been about ten at the time, and had been playing that noisy card game called ‘304’ with my siblings and the boy from next door when old Piyadasa came with a message from my father.
“The Master” (from the time he had come to work as a domestic in our house many years ago Piyadasa had never referred to my father as anything but that) “wants you to come downstairs and meet a visitor from England”.
I made a wry face. My sister and I were winning the game – we needed just five more tricks to complete our contract and win a bonus point – so I turned to Piyadasa and said “Go and tell Father that I’ll come down in five minutes.”
Piyadasa stood where he was, with that half smile which implied “I was sent by him to bring you down, so I’m not going back and conveying your message, I’ll just stand here patiently until you get up.”
I quickly wrapped up the game, told my brother “You deal the next round, I’ll be back soon” and accompanied Piyadasa downstairs to the front verandah where my father was seated talking to a fair skinned man. The visitor was sipping a glass of thambili (chilled coconut water) that Piyadasa had presumably served him before he had been sent upstairs to collect me.
“Ah, here you are, son. Come and meet Mr. Bruce Humphries”. Father waved me up to the visitor to shake hands. “This is my big son.”
It was the way he would always introduce me. Big Son. Eldest Son. Number One Son. These were names that conveyed pride in his firstborn -with all the obligations and responsibilities that were inherent in the title. You are the son whom I entrust with looking after your mother and the little ones when I am no more. Even after I married and had children of my own, Father would still refer to me as “my Big Son.”
I shook hands with Mr Humphries. With his fair hair and moustache he must have been around the same age as my father.
“Squadron Leader Humphries is visiting Ceylon for a few days. I wanted you to meet him because he has brought me a gift from an old friend – an autograph album with Don Bradman’s autograph. Someday when you are older I will give it to you”
“You mean Don Bradman’s REAL autograph?” I blurted out, my eyes widening.
“Yes, his real autograph” the Englishman smiled “It’s in this book”. He indicated a small leather bound album which he proceeded to hand over to my father “which was entrusted to me by your dad’s old friend Andy Jayaratne. Your dad used to know him as Ananda, which was his real name – but when he came to England he shortened his name to Andy, which is what we called him.”
“It seems that your dad and Andy went to watch the Don play when he visited Colombo with the Australian cricket team in 1938 – and the two of them went up to the great man and asked him to sign this book.”
I went over to where my dad was seated and rested my hand on his shoulder. He was thoughtfully turning the pages of the book.
“It was somewhere in the middle of the book on a blue page, if I remember correctly. Ah, here it is.”
I stared at the faded writing – a neat almost scholarly hand, the clearly legible signature sloping upwards.
“May I hold it, Thatha?” I reverently stretched out my hand for the book.
“Are your hands clean?” asked my father, half jokingly
I self-consciously wiped my hands on my trousers.
Bruce laughed, as did my father.
My father handed the book to me and I held it as one might a prayer book or Bible.
My father and this friend of his, Ananda, had met Don Bradman himself. They had actually spoken to him. And here was his signature to prove it.
“Where is your friend now – this Uncle Ananda?” I asked father.
My father’s face clouded over. “He died, son.” He stretched both his hands towards me and straightened my collar. “Squadron Leader Humphries was just telling me about it.” He turned to him and said “Tell him the story, Bruce. Tell my son about Andy.”
Andy had been my father’s classmate, his closest friend since they were in primary school together -the same as me and Anura, who had lived next door to us ever since I could remember and was in the same class as I was at school – and must even now be impatiently waiting for me to return upstairs to continue our game of 304.
While Father had been the more studious type (his greatest sporting achievements at school were winning school colours in rifle shooting and chess) his bosom pal Andy in contrast had been a fine sportsman – cricket, hockey, soccer, swimming, athletics had all come naturally to him.
Father and Andy had been 18 and in their final year of school in 1939 when war broke out. My father had been selected to go to University but Andy decided to volunteer – fired no doubt by the patriotism to serve King and Empire that was so strongly inculcated in our people during British colonial times. My pragmatic father had tried to dissuade him (“I kept telling him that this was not our war, and that he should remain in Colombo”) but Andy volunteered for the Royal Air Force and was selected to be sent to England for training.
“I was with him the day he sailed” interrupted my father with a faraway look in his eyes, “he was so enthusiastic. At last he was getting the chance to serve the Empire and kill Germans – or “have a crack at Jerry” as he flippantly put it”.
After his training Andy was posted to the RAF’s Bomber Command – which is where he and Bruce came to serve in the same Lancaster crew – Bruce as a navigator and Andy as a rear gunner.
“We were both flight sergeants and became good friends. Andy even married my wife’s younger sister.” continued Bruce. “The two of us flew several sorties together in that Lancaste but one day our luck ran out and we were shot down over France. A couple of the crew bought it, but the rest of us were captured and ended up in a prisoner of war camp in Germany. I served out the rest of the war as a POW. Andy and I shared a hut in the camp – but sadly he contracted pneumonia some months before the war ended and he died in captivity.”
“Andy always carried this autograph album with him in the pocket of his flight jacket. He used to consider it his good luck charm because it had the autographs of all his friends back home. There is even a page with your father’s signature on it.”
My father had turned to the page. There, written in his characteristic large looped handwriting was a verse (so typical of my unemotional father!):
‘When at this page you look
and at this age you frown,
Remember me who marked this book
by writing upside down!’
And beneath the verse was Father’s signature (with the funny looking “S” that I had now adopted when I needed to sign my name) and his address – the same house where he had been born, had no doubt spent many happy childhood days playing with Andy and their friends, and where we all still lived so many years later.
“I went to see Andy at the camp hospital shortly before he died.” continued Bruce “conditions there were quiet primitive. We had a dedicated British Army doctor who was also a prisoner with us in the camp, a Major Fellows, and he did his best for the allied prisoners with the limited supplies we were given – but there were no antibiotics like penicillin in those days and Andy knew his chances of survival were slim.”
“He told me that if he died and if I got out alive, he wanted me to promise him two things. The first was to ensure that the chain he always wore around his neck – it had both a Christian cross and a Buddhist talisman, a sort of little metal tube he used to call a “suray” – were handed over to his wife back in England. The second promise he extracted from me was that I take charge of his autograph book and take it some day to Ceylon, locate his best friend Sunanda and give him the book with a personal message. This is why I have made this trip to Ceylon – to fulfil the promise I made to Andy before he died.”
“What was Uncle Andy’s message for my father?” I asked “What did he want you to tell him?”
The former Air Force officer looked at my father expectantly. My father nodded at him and Bruce Humphries took from the table where it had been left by him an old piece of paper on which was written in pencil:
“Goodbye, Sunny. I often think of our happy schooldays in Colombo and I remember you with much affection. You were right when you tried to prevent me from joining up. THIS IS NOT OUR WAR. Ananda.
I looked up from the paper at my father.
My father did not say anything. He was just staring at the sheet of paper in my hand.
His eyes were brimming over with tears.
If you liked this story, please have a look at my collection of similar short stories Not Our War – available as an eBook from Amazon.com.au
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