Tags

, , , , ,

Unlike her two older sisters my grandmother had married when she was just eighteen. Sometimes I wonder whether, though she remained convinced all her life that hers had been a great romance, she had not accepted the first person proposed to her because she could see the fate of her older brothers and sisters, all six of them still unmarried. Certainly there had been some sort of an arrangement involved. Her father as a youth in Galle had known my grandfather’s mother. Family tradition had it that he had wanted to marry her but been too poor, and she had married someone else while he went off to seek his fortune. It was quite likely that, forty years later, the thwarted couple would have thought it a good idea to bring the most eligible of their children together.

My grandmother had four children and, though one died unmarried in his thirties, just after we got back from Canada, and another became a priest and never married either, there were eight in the generation that followed. So there was destined to be some lasting use at least for all that old Hector with his tremendous energy had acquired. Yet none of these descendants bore his name. A hundred years after his first child was born, there was only Marie who did that; and by then the Bishop had died and Palm Court had been sold and even Marie was about to move to Colombo. When she did, our connection with the town ended.

In the early sixties however Palm Court had seemed to stand as solid as a rock. To my youthful eyes, going there on family holidays at first, and then later by myself, to read and do nothing and be indulged, it seemed still a mansion running as grandly as it had done when it was built. The quantity of staff it employed was prodigious. There were two cooks, just on Hugh’s side of the house, a man to produce courses at dinner and western breakfasts, a woman for the rice and curry and for hoppers and string hoppers; there was a boy to do the daily dusting and sweeping, and another smaller boy to help him and polish the silver; there was an old woman, Marie’s former ayah, who sewed and combed out Marie’s hair each day and folded napkins into elaborate shapes; and there was a driver, for the grand Humber Hawk, which consumed enormous quantities of petrol but looked superb.

That was the domestic staff proper. In addition, several men came in from the estates at various fixed times during the day to perform special tasks. Most notable, when I was very young, was Siya who looked old and wizened though he must only have been in his forties then. He came in before dawn each morning to milk the cow, there always being one with a calf in the grounds so that we could have really fresh milk. Soon after dawn another man came in to draw enough water from the well for the day’s requirements, though that stopped after a pump was installed. The barber, an immigrant from India whose saloon in town had been rented from the family, also came in every morning to shave Hugh and sometimes later on in the day too, to cut the little of his hair that remained, and mine when I was in residence. Then there were various other men who came in during the day to help with polishing floors and looking after the garden and plucking the various fruits, coconuts and mangoes and limes, which grew in abundance. Then in the afternoons yet another man came in to milk the cow again, and after that another to draw the water and heat it up for Hugh’s bath. The latter practice continued after the pump had been installed, and even after Hugh died, for by then Marie had decided that she too needed warm water for her evening bath.

So much for the main house, and the right wing, and the extensions at the back, the old one where the servants’ quarters and the kitchens were, the new one added for my grandmother and her family after she got married. In the left wing of the main house my grand-aunt Lilian had her own establishment: there was a woman to cook, and another one to clean, and a rumbustious housekeeper of largely Irish descent called Miss Kelly. I called on Lilian faithfully morning and evening whenever I stayed at Palm Court and she and I used to play word games, first for my amusement, later as I grew older for hers. The name Kelly gave us a lot of fun, given the words it rhymed with. In addition, there was voluminous correspondence. Unfortunately despite her gentility she had great difficulty with spelling; or perhaps fortunately, for the hours passed quickly as she spelled out the difficult words in her letters for Lilian to correct.

For a decade or so, from about the time I was born, a year or so after her mother had died and right through until the early sixties, Marie too had a companion of sorts. This was a distant cousin who taught at a school in Kurunegala. And it was her move to Colombo, in about nineteen sixty four, that I think marked the beginning of change. It was then that the shift towards a highly centralized system had become so powerful that the provinces were left far behind. The determination of Marie’s companion to get a transfer only paralleled what everyone else, in every social group, was engaged in. Not that Palm Court itself became poorer, or the life style it aimed at and was capable of sustaining less lavish. It was simply that it became impossible to find personnel, even if one were prepared to pay extravagant salaries.

What happened in the kitchen was a case in point. When the capable old cook, overcome with rheumatism, had finally to retire, it proved impossible to find anyone as skilled who was willing to work in Kurunegala. For Hugh this was a disaster. He enjoyed his food and could discuss the merits of all sorts of elaborate dishes with tremendous enthusiasm. Despite the careful habits his mother and wife and daughter had built up in him over the decades, he was moved to pay what, even by Colombo standards, seemed an excessive salary; and he got himself an experienced chef, who had previously worked on an upcountry estate for an Englishman. Within a couple of months however, finding life in Kurunegala too dull, the man left.

It is conceivable that worry about all this prompted Hugh’s first heart attack. That anyway provided a sort of solution. Marie, embarking on the necessary process of becoming more and more adaptable over the years, persuaded him that it would be a good thing to cut down on his food: the woman who cooked the rice and curry but could also manage some very basic courses would suffice. Anything more elaborate Marie herself could prepare. Though this meant that the fat he loved was trimmed off pork and lamb, that skin was removed from chicken and potatoes mashed without butter, Hugh perhaps gained several more years of life as a result. Equally importantly it provided Marie with some sort of occupation as she grew older and the full meaning of provincialism began to make itself clear.

In the years that followed she had to engage far more actively too in not only supervision but actual housework too. The stream of boys from the Catholic coastal area her mother had come from died down in the sixties, as opportunities for other types of employment opened there with the development of tourism. For the more adventurous, who wanted to go further, the lure of Colombo proved irresistible. Marie had to make do instead with labour from the estate, and the older men at that, for the younger ones were no longer inclined to accept domestic service as an obligation. And as that too became irregular, Marie ended up doing much more herself too.

Advertisements