#KoraliFiction: At the Dutch Hospital
Remember our first meeting? In a Galle Road restaurant that served kottu and devilled chicken to ravenous, foul-smelling families? You removed your golfer’s cap and put it on the empty chair to your right, something of a dandy in your checked long sleeves and tan vest. This was Colombo, not a pub in London. I later learned you were a student of literature specialising in comics – already you looked quite the professor. You were on holiday from England. I did not ask the usual questions, my thought was that it was perhaps a legitimate field of study, comics being cultural loot, the glossy shimmer of the base desires of our unconsciousness.
I remember your eyes, puffy and veined, kind eyes that had children in them. You needed a lighter, but wanted company. A perfunctory gaze would tell one that you didn’t belong here, yet you were at home.
“Come, sit down,” you said in an accent overlaid with a posh Londoner’s speech. “Try the devilled chicken. It’s the best in town.”
I sat opposite you, and you showed me your phone: the entire city seemed to be in your Google reviews.
“I think I’m the top reviewer in the whole country,” you laughed without a shred of irony.
You were as you appeared, I learned that over a few more encounters.
Within weeks we would go in your chauffeur driven car to the exclusive club of your private school, for cocktails at the Movenpick, canapes at the Kingsbury, hoppers at Pillawoos. We became more than acquaintances.
That June, you invited me over to your home where I stayed a fortnight. It was a sprawling house just outside Kotte, with a wildly-wooded backyard. The interior was minimalist ethnic, large grey sofa with soft cushions, a Turkish rug, slate armchairs, a Moroccan coffee table.
Sunk into the sofa, we talked, drank your Scotch and listened to old jazz CDs. There is a Japanese comic about the perfect sadist and the perfect masochist, you told me. Everything builds up to that knee-weakening moment when the two finally meet. And the result is an utterly depraved and thrilling climax, I must read it.
You showed me the comic you were working on – an orphaned boy growing up during the Civil War with the very Sinhalese couple whose espionage had led to the capture and death of his real parents, something the child was to realise much later. I thought it was very good. The art was feverish, nightmare studies of people reduced to bare bones and skin and expressions of intense vacuity, horror, despair.
The people had suffered, you told me, it was the people, the ordinary, the everyday. Your source was your uncle, a wartime intelligence officer. You said men were not meant to shriek the way he did at night.
Your father left you his considerable wealth, the product of mining gems in Haputale, and had departed from the country with your mother a decade back. His voice arrives over the phone on special days.
Money has made you peculiar. You act without deliberation, you are completely confident in your abilities whether painting or indulging in a game of poker. And unlike some, you don’t believe there are people out to deceive you. You do not date. I sometimes wondered about your sexual preferences, but it seemed a very trivial matter.
You spend weekends with your childhood friends, most of them not far from your economic milieu. You meet them on Saturdays, get drunk, go bar hopping, and somebody inevitably makes a move on the wrong woman: then screams and baseball bats, spidery cracks on a windscreen. But hardly ever blood. Because the good people of Colombo are mostly, mostly all bark.
Last winter I visited you in England, at the flat near Fleet Street. We had steak and ale pie at the Cheshire Cheese just down the road, washed it down with Belgian bitters. There, in the tavern’s cellar-like dimness, you told me you wanted to kill yourself. I brushed it off as babble, maybe work, beer and the moist London weather were dampening your spirit. You were almost done with the comic, you would let me see it soon.
Then, on the eve of your 38th,while we waited at the Dutch Hospital in Colombo, one of your friends rushed in and broke the news.
And here in the solemn light. Here I am, looking, no, gazing into your face, observing those pale brown windows to that which has already fled, it is uncanny how they appear to rest pensively on the ceiling.
It came as a surprise to everyone but me that you had a will. I inherited the comic, now complete.
Back home, as I read, I began to understand the secret sunk into the darkened pouches around your eyes, childlike, for children. Your face appears slippery with guilt and wanting. I tell you two words and you streak past me giggling into your backyard of jackfruit and shoe flower and ripe bilimbi trees.