Michael’s return had been eagerly awaited by everyone, the engagement having even been postponed until after he got back. He had been a great favourite at the Old Place too, which he had visited frequently during his school holidays, to spend some time with my mother and myself. He had usually come by himself, but occasionally he had brought the odd friend along, and a few years before he left for England he had wanted to bring Nimal. My mother had made some sort of an excuse and Michael had never repeated the proposal. I do not think however that that had any bearing on the fact that the visits had tailed off towards the end. As he grew up, we could not expect him to be quite as fond of the older generation as he had been before. Nevertheless, it was the earlier times we remembered when we thought of him; and he himself had written that he intended to come to spend a few days with us upon his return.
Not even for Michael though would my mother agree to go to Colombo. Obviously this was primarily because she did not want to meet Nimal in his present situation, but I also suspect that there was some sort of residual resentment against Michael for having initiated the attachment in the first place. Certainly when I told her that Michael had in a letter to me referred to the engagement with disbelief, she had simply sniffled and remarked with asperity, ‘What does he expect when he brings him into his own house and treats him like an equal?’
‘He doesn’t seem to be too pleased, though.’
My mother had not deigned to reply. She was left in no doubt however about Michael’s bona fides when, soon after he arrived, we got a postcard declaring that he could not cope with the ‘excitement caused by these bizarre events’; he wanted to get away to us for a few days, and would come at once if we telephoned to say it was all right. My mother usually takes some time to prepare for anything out of the ordinary, but on this occasion she had called up within minutes of the postman’s delivery.
‘Michael was out, but Iris said she would tell him.’ I was told afterwards. ‘She wanted me to promise not to discuss the matter with him.’
‘I told her that that would seem unnatural.’ She forestalled any comment from me by adding, ‘But I agreed not to tell him anything he didn’t know already.’
‘Did that satisfy her?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t think so. But I couldn’t tell a lie’.
Later on that day my mother began to voice doubts about the propriety of a marriage that required a suppression of truth which amounted to falsehood. Nevertheless, possibly because she felt she owed at least that to Iris, she kept off the topic for a day after Michael’s arrival. Doubtless also out of a sense of propriety, he too restrained himself. It was however noticeable that even his general conversation was now muted. He had always been fairly lively before, and his letters from England had been even more ebullient. He had been wont to tease us about what he called our old fashioned views, advancing on occasion some even quite outrageous opinions, quite clearly in order to make us react. This time his entire behaviour seemed calculated to show my mother that he thought her and her views worthy of affection and emulation.
Possibly hindsight has affected my impressions. There could have been no mistake though about the tone in which he remarked at lunch on the day after his arrival, looking at the empty place at the head of the table where my father used to sit, ‘It’s going to be difficult, thinking of Nimal sitting there in the future.’
My mother, who had never discussed matters of importance at table from the day on which it had struck her that servants might have acquired a knowledge of English, made a noncommittal reply. I could tell however from the satisfactory set of her face that she felt the time had come when she could talk about the aspects of the engagement that interested her without being in breach of her obligations. Sure enough, when we had retired to the little sitting room for our coffee, she began.
At the Old Place the custom had been from time immemorial that gentlemen were served their coffee in large cups. Possibly thinking of Michael simply as a grandson, the boy had brought out three small cups. My mother’s rebuke had been quite excessive, which had possibly flustered him further, for in pouring out into the large cup he had brought for Michael he contrived to spill some coffee. Michael had been gracious about it, but he was the fastidious sort and had gone out immediately to change his trousers.
‘I’m so sorry.’ My mother said richly on his return. The boy had hovered about, evidently intending to make up for his blunder, but she had dismissed him and now poured out a fresh cup for Michael herself. ‘Sunil is such a fool. And so clumsy too. Now Nimal’s grandfather would never have made such a total mess of things.’
‘So it’s true that he worked here once?’ It did not seem to me from his tone that Michael required any confirmation of this.
‘For fifteen years. And now he will have his reward.’
‘I suppose you might say it didn’t really matter after such a very long time.’
‘Your mother seems to think there’s nothing to mind in the slightest.’
This seemed to me to be treading on dangerous ground. Michael was very attached to Iris. But all he said now was, ‘She just doesn’t appear able to see that there are some things that are simply not done.’
‘Well, this is going to be done.’
‘I don’t know.’ Michael put his coffee aside and got up and went to the window. It had begun to rain and the wind was tossing the branches of the massive trees in the garden. Sometimes they swayed quite alarmingly, but no winds had yet succeeded in blowing any of them down. ‘Those trees must be well over a hundred years old by now.’
‘They were planted by your great-great-grandfather.’
I should myself have said that some of them were substantially older. ‘It wouldn’t do to let them go.’ Michael shook his head sadly, and turned and went back to his seat. His coffee spilled again as he took up his cup, but only slightly, and this time he simply dabbed at his trousers with his handkerchief. ‘It wouldn’t do at all.’
It struck me that very probably one or more of the trees had been planted by one of Nimal’s ancestors, but I thought it would be facetious to bring this up. In any case, as my mother said, ‘It’s so difficult to know what to do,’ and Michael turned and looked steadily at her, I could not possibly have interrupted. They looked very much alike at that moment.
‘He used to be my best friend.’ Michael said seriously, and then he smiled. For the first time during that visit I felt that, except for being quite clearly an adult now, he had not fundamentally changed at all. ‘There must be a way. Would it be a great nuisance to ask for some fresh coffee?’
My mother got up herself to ring the bell.