Issue 15, Winter 1956
Dick Donaldson, who in deference to the sundown tradition of the East, was having his first drink of the day, thanked God when he sipped it that this one, unlike all other drinks he had had in Ceylon, was made not with arak, but with real English gin.
“There’s someone,” Mrs. Potter said, pointing. “Over there. I can introduce you to them. They speak English—after a fashion. He had a year somewhere—law or medicine—I don’t know what.” She led Dick to the edge of the terrace where an exquisite young couple was standing near a flaming hibiscus. They were a small, delicately made man and a smaller, more delicate woman. He was dressed in grey flannel and she in a black and gold sari. Dick was amazed at the size of the diamond she wore attached to one of her nostrils.
“Mr. and Mrs. Seniviratna,” Mrs. Potter announced.
The man bowed, and the woman nodded shyly. “Dr. and Mrs. Seniviratna,” he said softly.
“Of course. So sorry,” Mrs. Potter murmured. “This is Mr. Donaldson from New York. He’s only just arrived in our country.”
Seniviratna bowed again, more deeply this time. “I am honored. I have been in your city. But only to touch it in passing. However, I was able to admire your great buildings and wonderful engineering feats as well as to watch your great Mr. Roosevelt, who is now so regrettably dead, as he passed in a parade... If we could have such great things here—such engineers and such great Mr. Roosevelts—it would not be the same sad country you now must look upon.”
Dick felt moved to protest. “But now you are a free country, you will have these things. You will develop them for yourselves from your own people.”
“Do you really think so?” asked Seniviratna. “I fear we are not worthy.”
“Come along,” Mrs. Potter said impatiently. “You will excuse us, Mr. Seniviratna, so nice to have you with us.”
Seniviratna bowed deeply. “Dr. Seniviratna,” he whispered.
Before they were more than a few feet beyond the hibiscus, Mrs. Potter began to talk, much too loudly. “What airs they put on,” she said. “And the accent! Did you ever hear anything like it? They’d give all they possess to be rid of it. But they never can lose it. Even the best of them have it.”
Dick wondered, guiltily, why Mrs. Potter who was, though she obviously did not think so, one of them, did not have the accent. Her English was perfect. But she was not the woman his friend Thistlethwaite allowed him to think she was when he told him they were going to drive south of Colombo for Christmas with the Potters. He had met Horace Potter in the hotel bar the day he had arrived in Ceylon (he had come to visit Thistlethwaite, a wartime acquaintance, on vacation from his job with Pan-American in Calcutta) and his reaction to Potter, who was tall, ruddyfaced, whitehaired and mustached, had been to think that here was the man people meant when they spoke of a pukka sahib. Dick knew Potter was one of the richest planters in Ceylon and when Thistlethwaite told him they were to spend Christmas at Potter Hill, he had tried to imagine what Stella Potter would be like. She would be tall, too, he thought, a faded blonde with a pink parasol. The woman who stood beside him now did have a pink parasol, but she was not a tall, commanding Anglo-Saxon with skin too pale for the tropical sun, but a small Singhalese with dark brown skin, large black eyes that were glazed and shifting, and small, pudgy hands that fluttered constantly.
She was tugging at his arm now, waving with her other hand, calling out excitedly: “There’s Father Christmas! He’s arrived. Time to begin the ceremonies. Come with me to the house. I’m sure you want another drink.” She waved her hand again, this time toward the veranda, and almost immediately a gong was beaten enthusiastically, and several quick-footed servants in white coats and sarongs ran across the lawn. They flew from guest to guest, calling out some message in a strange language that Dick assumed was Singhalese. The crowd rustled and sighed as Mrs. Potter waved her hand again, this time at them. “Into the house,” she shouted. “Everyone into the house.” Then she took Dick’s arm and added in a quiet voice: “You must forgive all this. It will soon be over and we’ll have a lovely long weekend, just the ones who belong, all of us together. Won’t that be nice?”
Not knowing what else to say, Dick agreed that it would be very nice and added, more sincerely: “This is such a wonderful place. I shouldn’t think you’d ever leave it.”
“I never do,” Mrs. Potter answered faintly. “Never even for a single day.” She clasped her hands together and looked away from Dick, out at the view. It was magnificent. Violent-colored vegetation rolled away before them, down several hundred feet to the hot-green sea; directly below was an oval-shaped lagoon edged by a pink beach. Drawn up on the shore, under the coconut palms, was a fleet of fishing boats with tattered brown sails that now gleamed amber in the failing light. Across the lagoon, purple hills rose in clusters, higher and higher until, in the distance, they became mountains; not very far beyond Potter Hill, a little way down toward the sea, there was a group of temples, and the bell-shaped domes of whitewashed dagabas glistened on all the hills.
Mrs. Potter turned away from the view. She took Dick to the house, which was a rambling, one story bungalow of no particular character. They went inside. It was dark and cool. The drawing room was very large, running the length of the house, but Dick was disappointed to find it tastelessly furnished in bamboo and teak, and the over-luminous paintings of English country scenes that hung on the walls made him shudder.
The guests were coming in slowly—cautiously, it must have been—in response to the summons. But Mrs. Potter seemed not to notice them. She devoted herself to Dick, finding the best place for him, seeing they were well supplied with drink. She downed two more quickly, then looked about her; her attention wandered to the far end of the room; there it focused on three Singhalese boys who were throwing darts at a target. They were of striking appearance—tall, well built, dressed all in white with shirts open at the throat and shorts that flared widely at the cuffs. “Look!” she shouted, running toward them, “our cricket heroes!” Flourishing her glass high above her head, she cried: “You wonderful creatures! Tell me, tell me, did you have a great time in Bombay?”
Mrs. Potter winked lewdly and turned to Dick. “We won the championship this year, you know. Downed India, we did, thanks to these three boys. The Gunasakera brothers,” and she pointed them out one by one—“Cyril—Cecil—Claude—very much the heroes of the day.”
The room was filling up, and many people came forward to greet the cricketers. Dick, seeing the guests assembled in a smaller space, thought they looked, as they had not on the lawn, acutely foreign and strange. He became conscious of their many shades of color; of their beautiful even teeth and their expressive faces that told him nothing, no matter how intently he looked at them; of their odors of sandalwood and betal, and, most of all, of their all-pervading, intense quiet.
At last, Mrs. Potter took notice of her guests and waved them into chairs. She helped seat the children in orderly rows on the floor. No one spoke. The only conversation came from a group of English people that sat apart at one end of the room; and that conversation was not animated: it was low and lacking in gaiety.
When everyone was seated and settled, Mrs. Potter assumed an air of great importance and marched unsteadily to one end of the room. She stopped before high double doors, waited dramatically a moment, then clapped her hands. The doors flew open, and there was revealed a giant Christmas tree, ablaze with candles, heavyladen with packages. The hush became profound: no cries of admiration or deep sighs of pleasure greeted the gleaming vision. Mrs. Potter, disappointed in her effect, hurried to another door and clapped again. At this signal, the portly gentleman she had previously identified as Father Christmas rushed into the room. Attired in full Santa Claus regalia, beaming in the manner demanded by his role, shouting greetings to the children, he made a great attempt to please; but if he succeeded, it was not apparent, for the children remained immobile, politely superior to his exuberance; and their parents looked puzzled—a few giggled foolishly. Mrs. Potter, disappointed again, made a frantic gesture, and her husband ran to the phonograph and switched it on. Instantly, it obliged with a greatly amplified recording of Adeste Fidelis (sung by Bing Crosby). The guests listened, but with an air of somewhat pained surprise, and Dick told himself that this reaction was the same as his always was when Oriental music was played.