After that I looked on Marie’s lonely years at Palm Court with even greater awe. As time passed the loneliness had increased. For some years after Hugh’s death staff from the estates had continued to work at the house; but with land reform the estates had become smaller, and the rest of the family sold their sections off, and the pool of labour available to her became smaller. Still, in 1975, when I stayed for a few days during my visit home, her situation was reasonably satisfactory. Siya, who had come in for years to milk the cow in the mornings, now spent most of the day there even though there was no cow any longer. His wife came in to cook lunch and help with dinner, and there were even a couple of nephews to do any heavy work.
Feudal fidelity I though at the time, with a sort of satisfaction. But I was wrong. A year later I heard that Marie had found him stealing paddy from the store, and the parting had been acrimonious. After that hardly anyone from the estates came in to help her. Siya it seemed had said that she would never manage, and would have to leave Kurunegala in helplessness.
But she did manage, and lingered there for ten years more and Siya had long been dead by the time she left. Generally but not always she had a woman with her, at first the old ayah, then a few who stayed for short periods each, and finally the half-wit who was only upto sweeping and cleaning the vegetables, but who at least provided some company. Twice a year or so she would march out in high dudgeon, but always to return. Apart from this there was a boy at times for all Marie’s friends worried about her and tried to find her servants; but no boy would stay for more than a few weeks, the dullness of the town combined with the gloom of Palm Court proving too much for ordinary temperaments. Finally, for security, and to bring the bread in the mornings, the barber’s son would stay overnight, in the extension.
But that was not always. And even with him there it seems to me a miracle that no one broke in, during all those years that Marie stayed on. She herself however was not surprised. She claimed that the ghosts of all her forebears would protect her. Perhaps that story, as well as the rumours of proliferating snakes, served to frighten people away.
As the years passed, we thought that she would never leave. But she did, as she had said she would, after the testamentary case was over. She sold off enough of her property, little by little, first to buy a bit of land near but not too near us in Colombo, and then she built a house there, which was a slow business for she could never agree with the architect. She brought the Humber Hawk with her, and the two lamps, and the half-wit, who left her permanently however soon afterwards, to be replaced initially only by a woman who came in twice a week to do the heavy cleaning.
By then Marie had developed a disease of the pancreas that prevented her from eating anything but boiled chicken. Vegetables were allowed, but were not taken very seriously, given the family predilection for meat. For three years she ate two joints of chicken at every meal, just wings, for that was the only part of the chicken that she liked. I used to tell her that she had been solely responsible, at the rate of two chickens a day, for the demise of over two thousand birds. The wings of more than half of those she had carried to Kurunegala in the bus, having bought them on her fortnightly visits to Colombo after she discovered a particular poulterer who suited her ideally.
The illness lasted for not much more than a year after she had moved to Colombo. It was during this period that she gave a number of dinner parties which laid the foundations for an active social life in the city. I don’t know which was more remarkable: Marie eating her two joints of boiled chicken while her guests feasted themselves on elaborate dishes; or the fact that she cooked and served these entirely by herself, in the elegant little house that she kept so spotlessly clean. It was all so very different from the life that even I had known for a short time at Palm Court.