The Sandglass

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But the Pearl he remembered was rather different from the one I had come to know. I felt a little apprehensive. I didn't know how Prins would react to me now, back in London: to my closeness to Pearl, made possible only by his absence, by my not being one of her children, perhaps by my not having a mother to call on. But I was the one who was there, willing to share the reality of her words and peek into another world. On the side of the dresser behind him, above the telephone, I had pinned my only photograph of Pearl.

A snapshot from before I was born. I had never got round to framing it properly. A drift of mauvish fluff and dust had collected on the curled-up corners. I wiped the photograph on my sleeve and slipped it into the drawer underneath the stack of telephone directories. I had left Sri Lanka some years before but still had no place of my own. Not having a job at the time, I had borrowed some money and travelled to London determined to live out what was perhaps a misplaced but youthful dream.

Staying with Pearl, at 52b Almeida Avenue, made it possible. She had a spare room because Prins -- her elder son -- had gone to Oldham on a ten-month stint learning to sell woollen yarn. His younger brother, Ravi, was living with Pearl but he tended to lock himself away in the darkest bedroom of the flat. Most evenings during that first cold year I would sit on a brown leatherette armchair opposite Pearl, sipping sherry and listening to her stories, while she knitted shawls or cardigans on the sofa, between scenes of vintage movies and episodes of Kojak on TV.

Even then I was looking for a way to shape my life in the wake of her own effervescent trail. Pearl, then Prins, became the cardinal points for my uncertain identity. But that man was so desperate for his own dung heap, he thought of nothing else. Pearl would recount the story of those early days with such candour that I felt I was there with her, an invisible eavesdropper in the twilight of a camphoric age. Pearl had been brought up almost in quarantine, in houses with acres of empty space; but they were never houses owned by her parents.

Her father, a doctor, had moved from place to place trying to give help wherever it was needed. He had died in the malaria epidemic of Her mother had been a victim of the disease earlier, but Pearl never spoke about her -- except to give me her name, Sikata, and say that as a result her father always found a house with clean sea or mountain air for his only child. Pearl grew up revelling in Father Brown mysteries and English romances under mango trees in secluded gardens.

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Other people entered her world only through the surgery door: vulnerable, hurt people seeking a bit of help in their struggle to survive from one day to the next. That was why Jason had seemed so fascinating when he arrived at their house. He had no obvious afflictions or injuries. He rode a bicycle and acted as though he belonged in a Russian play. He would arrive riding with just one finger on the handlebar and a flower in his other hand. While his contemporaries swotted night and day for their future status in a ramshackle empire, Jason spoke enchantingly about the need for beauty, and the transmigration of souls.

I have to say.

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Never, I guess. He was sincere. He didn't put on airs like the rest of them,' she sighed. She was young then.

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She had believed in Jason and his sparkling bicycle, his neatly plucked flower, his deliciously heady words. She married him for romance, she said, but Jason, it seems, quickly came to feel that he needed to replenish her world with the accoutrements of her late father's home: a sideboard, bookshelves, a garden, rather than simply with a good doctor's flair. All the months of their courtship he had been so debonair.

And sometimes we would walk together in the evening by the sea and he would tell me about the stars and Venus, "The eye of love in the sky".

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But that ability to be inside her without even touching her had disappeared after the wedding, as if physically entering her that first night made it impossible for him to ever reach her any other way. Pearl was concerned that she did not become pregnant immediately, in the way that she had been led to expect by her father's abbreviated biology lessons. Each successive day after the wedding he became more and more obsessed with finding something that would launch their lives into a richer orbit.

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He ridiculed the examination system for public service and bemoaned his lost opportunities with the professions. He became determined to break the mould and breach Colombo's foreign mercantile sector. All signs of levity evaporated.


I used to ask myself, this urge to go out? Why was he not there with me all the time, while I was still in such a state over my father's death? But she was the one who knew everything, not me. Jason Ducal was a man of no means. Although Pearl's father had provided for her, before donating the rest of his small estate to a hospice, Jason had no money of his own. And, after his marriage, this seemed to have troubled him greatly. Before the end of their first year of marriage, in , Jason had secured a unique position with Sanderson Bros. It was a coup. No Ceylonese had ever before penetrated this last bastion of British colonial conservatism, not at the level he did. The firm, at the time, was exceptionally prescient; it recognized the need to ride the wave of nationalism sweeping the island and develop local managers, cultivate the indigenous elite and turn itself into a genuine Ceylonese entity before the inevitable transfer of power. While other British firms rubbished all talk of Ceylonization, Sanderson Bros.

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  6. Jason convinced the senior partners that he was the man who would show them the future and they appointed him to an executive position that baffled all the gazetteers of the annual Ceylon Directory. But neither Jason nor Pearl quite realized how much of a turning point his appointment would prove to be. I don't know what he did to get it, but he could pour on the charm when he wanted to back then.

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    He wanted to talk. It was the last time he really wanted to talk. He hadn't even got to the office yet, and already he was dreaming of his house. He was the first kaluwa , no? In those firms only the British were given houses.

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    But he saw how one day owning a house might be possible for folk like us. His face was so bright with hope. He was determined to make it on his own, unlike all those other Colombo dimbats with their creepy ancestors and shady money. Jason proved to be an extraordinary success at the firm. He quickly rose to a position which involved him in frequent excursions around the island.

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    So while that Bracegirdle chappie, the Commie, was fighting against deportation to Australia in that famous case before the war, Jason put in for a passage to England and got it. On the one hand his absence put their home on a precipice; on the other hand Pearl was able to go with him. The trip to England changed her life forever. She loved to talk about that journey as though it was the true culmination of their earlier courtship. There is only one photograph of the two of them together from that time. Pearl is looking at Jason, but Jason is looking straight into the camera lens like a slightly camp model.

    She had come with Jason by ship to spend two months in England and Scotland early in the summer of It was wonderful. Iain met us at the other end and took us around. A senior partner. Jason was his protege. He was on furlough also. Imagine us on furlough. Pretending to go home from home. But Iain was a wonderful, kind man. He was the one who gave Jason a taste for real malt whisky. He took us to his favourite distillery on Speyside. Jason loved it: the idea of being a connoisseur or whatever. And then there was the golf. He had taken them to St Andrews. He was as jerky as a chicken wing; his swing was flatter than a Bambalapitiya cheesecake.