Cyril and Esme Wickremesinghe moved into Lakmahal in January 1937. The Parsi architect Billimoria was responsible for the final design and construction, but the inspiration for the layout was Cyril’s.
It was an unusual design, with a long narrow front verandah giving onto three doors, two of them double, one quadruple. The main doors led into a hallway, while parallel to these was the set of four that gave onto a long dining room that was really an extension of the hall through a wide arch. It contained a table at which twelve could sit comfortably, with a wide bay containing five windows opposite the hall. Opposite the quadruple doorway was a small pantry which, by the time of my childhood, contained an electric cooker in a recent concession to the modern world.
On the other side of the hall, and entered through a very high archway, was a drawing room which seemed of great length, but at right angles to the corresponding length of the hall-cum-dining room. This visual, and I think aesthetic, speciality arose because the drawing room stretched the length of the narrow side of the verandah as well as the length of the hall, and then had a further room beyond, separated from it simply by two pillars. This last housed a grand piano, and in my time a large ebony couch, which had been supplied by my father when he moved into the house after he married my mother in 1948.
The twin of this couch, also brought from my father’s home in Getamanna in the south, stood at the other end of the drawing room, against the windows that gave onto the front lawn. Next to this couch was the double door that opened onto the front verandah, at right angles to the main door that opened onto the hall. Opposite the two entrances to the drawing room, from the verandah and the hall, was another verandah that was semi-circular in shape. This was one of the most distinctive features of the house, opening through graceful pillars and a short flight of steps onto the side garden. It was entered from the drawing room through a wide double door, and also through two windows which we would jump over at great speed during childhood chasing games.
In the center of the front of the house, between the drawing room windows and the open windows on the other side of the verandah, was a porch with flower beds inside and also on the other side, through an arch, in the garden. In the early days there were beds of flowers, cannas mostly, all round the edge of the garden, which also had a splendid hedge. That was missing when I came back from university, prompting the comment from the son of one of my mother’s friends that Lakmahal had had such a wonderful hedge until Anila Akki, my sister, learned to drive.
When I was a child the three sets of doors leading onto the verandah were opened every evening, and chairs set out along the edges, eight of them, with two tables on which stood vases of regularly renewed flowers. I gathered, when I was old enough to appreciate the oddity of this ritual, practiced daily for a few years even though visitors who could not be admitted through the back were few and far between, that when the house was young the doors had not been closed during the day, since there were no security problems during that halcyon period.
In the fifties, we still had plenty of staff so opening the doors and setting out the chairs, and staying there to make sure they were safe, and then taking them in again as dusk fell, and then closing the doors securely, was not a problem. As the years passed, though, against the desire of my grandmother to uphold tradition, my mother managed to restrict the ritual to opening of just the one door, and the placing of three chairs and one table.
But when I was very young, and when the ritual was practiced in full, the garden was in regular use every day, if only because my sister and I were washed and dressed and taken out each evening to play in the fresh air. We had two dogs then, one a youngster that belonged to my brother, and another a more sedate creature that had been my mother’s from before her marriage. Neither survived the nearly two years we spent in Canada between 1958 and 1960. Peter Pan had died naturally, but Koko it seems had simply walked out of the house one day and never come back.
A similar thing was to happen over forty years later, to a dog that looked to me like Koko, a black Spitz or Pomeranian that had also turned up out of the blue. I was away at the time, in 2000, and was astonished to find that my father had allowed the intruder to stay. But Taffy, as we called him, had taken up residence as to the manner born, and he proved a faithful if yappy companion to my father, balancing the large but much more tolerant German Shepherd who stuck firmly to my side when I was home.
Taffy vanished as suddenly as he had come. I was abroad again in 2004, exactly four years after he had arrived, and when I got home it was to find that he had walked out one day and not returned. Looking around and inquiring proved fruitless. One explanation was that he had decided, as was said of Koko, that he was going to die, and thought this decently done away from home. Another was that, being blind in one eye, he had crossed Duplication Road and then been unable to find his way back (the less adventurous Ricky scarcely stepped outside the gate, but Taffy did his own thing whenever he wanted).
An imaginative friend thought that Taffy had been sent by my mother to look after my father when he was trying to adjust to living without her, and his departure suggested that he could now cope on his own. But an even more interesting explanation was provided when the boy at home claimed to have seen him sitting in the front seat of a Sports Utility Vehicle driven by a foreigner along our street.
I suspect that Taffy is an ambitious dog who likes to change residence occasionally when a brighter opportunity presents itself. Having spent four happy years at Lakmahal, once a star in the social firmament, but now sadly outdated, he leapt with alacrity into the car of a foreigner dining at the Cricket Club or the Paradise Gallery Café, rarely frequented by my father or me but lodestars of the new rich, many of them foreign. Taffy, unlike poor Koko, who was supposedly sighted only on Galle Face Green, doubtless looking at the sea across which my mother had gone, would have relished a four wheel drive vehicle and a Ponting Pancake or whatever.