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On the next day even this straw had to be discarded, for there was a letter from Iris confirming that there was an engagement; and though this was still unofficial, and meant to be kept so for some time yet, Iris’s letter concluded with an eulogy of her son-in-law to be, which made it clear that she certainly was not to be counted upon in this crisis.

On reflection, I suppose my original assumption that Tara needed an excuse indicates that from the first I myself thought the match unsuitable; and I must confess that my reasons for this were not too different from those of my mother. Though I am only two years older than Iris, the fact that I have lived all my life at the Old Place, while she married early and went to Colombo, has contributed to my feelings about family being much more akin to those of my mother than to hers. Of course I am sufficiently of my own generation to realize, unlike my mother, that my prejudices cannot be objectively justified. But that in no way diminished the strength of my conviction that it would not be fitting for Nimal to end up as the master of Old Place.

To be precise, it was not the difference in caste I think that affected me. In fact I believe that even my mother would have swallowed her objections to that in the end. Both Iris and I had been firm in insisting that caste distinctions were not only outmoded but also evil, and our efforts had been assisted by my mother’s sincere if partial Christianity. We were not above regretting the difference, but we would have felt that our regrets were morally reprehensible, and on no account to be encouraged.

It was very different with the other main objection. To have stifled it and acquiesced, I felt, would have been to have betrayed my own ancestors. The fact was, for as far back as I knew, and though that was only just over a hundred years it covered the entire lifetime of the Old Place, Nimal’s forefathers had served my own.

‘His grandfather,’ my mother would tell me when the boys had first got to know each other, ‘used to bring the hot water for Father to shave, every morning. Father used to sit on the back verandah – of course we had no electricity in those days – and the little boy stood in front of him and held up the mirror. He was a bright little chap, but very lazy. Father had to beat him sometimes because he would get up late and then not wait till the water was properly heated before he brought it.’

My mother had sounded quite cheerful when telling the story. She had by then got over her irritation at hearing that Michael had made friends with Nimal, and that Iris was encouraging the friendship and allowing the boy to come into their house, and insisting that the children not be told about the past. In any case I don’t suppose that at that stage any of my mother’s irritation was directed against the protagonists in the story. What upset her rather was the absurdity, indeed the insensitivity, of a fate that had thrust the two boys together as equals.

At the same time I don’t think she could ever bring herself to forgive Nimal’s grandfather for having abandoned the Old Place, even though it had in fact been at her own father’s suggestion, to oblige a relative in Colombo who had need of a bright and trustworthy young man in his business. Nimal’s grandfather had been bright enough to rise in the business and, on the death of his patron, to branch off on his own. His son had continued to rise in the world and, though he did not move in quite the same circles as Iris, had managed to send Nimal to the same school as Michael.