It was lucky that I was there, for I was able to see my uncle as he arrived, and forestall him before he did anything tactless. He was not a tactful man. We were meant to be dining with him that evening, but it was clear to me that he had thought it essential to come over as soon as possible to ensure that all was decent. Indeed, I thought wryly to myself, he was probably under strict orders to telephone through to Colombo with a full report.
He headed direct towards me across the deep grass the moment he heard my call. ‘You’re a terrible man.’ he said as he approached, thumping his knuckles against his forehead. ‘What have you been doing?’
‘Nothing, as far as I know. And I’m sleeping in the iron bed too. Why?’
‘I suppose they actually do sleep with each other?’
My mistake this time was even more disgraceful than the previous one. I should have told him to mind his own business; but he was a priest, and I was on the defensive, and I didn’t.
‘Yes they do. But they didn’t while they were at home.’
‘That’s not what your grandmother thinks.’ He stopped short and looked at me sharply. ‘How do you know?’
‘Because I told them not to.’ Of course I was being more and more idiotic now, but at the time it seemed to me that I was simply providing evidence of my good faith. ‘You don’t suppose I didn’t realize that it would upset her? Of course they behaved properly at home.’
It is a measure of my uncle’s concern for my grandmother that he did not pick me up on my confession, or rather on its limitations. ‘You can’t be sure that they listened to you.’
‘Of course I can. Do you suppose my friends don’t have a modicum of decency?’ This was wholly the wrong way to approach the question, but it was in the end only because of the indignation that I worked up that I hit upon the right point of attack. ‘Does she think otherwise? In that case, I can only describe it as prurient and entirely misguided intuition.’
‘Well, it wasn’t entirely misguided, was it? You yourself admitted that they did sleep together.’ It was then that I dimly began to realize that I should kick myself hard, but fortunately he abandoned his advantage. ‘But it wasn’t only intuition. She said that the servants had told her.’
This preposterous assertion made me forget entirely my own indiscretions. ‘You mean she discusses that sort of thing with the servants?’ He only nodded, and the nod was an unhappy one. I abandoned the subject. I was after all very fond of him. ‘Well, you can simply assure her that they are wrong.’
‘That’s not really the point anyway. If you knew that they were sleeping together, you shouldn’t have asked them.’ I was speechless, not so much because I had asked for this by my confession, but because it seemed to me that he was taking unfair advantage of my present indulgence. But what he went on to say helped me to understand his position. ‘You may not remember, but I had the same sort of problem about 10 years ago. Not that I knew anything, of course, but I suppose I should have checked. I had three youth workers from England, on their way back from India, and I put them at home for a few days. Somehow she discovered that it wasn’t the two boys sharing the big room, but the girl and one of the boys. Actually it was very thoughtless of them. You couldn’t blame her for being angry.’
I had a vague memory of the incident, and of some unpleasantness, though at the time I had not of course been put in the picture. I felt very sorry for my uncle. ‘Well, they were meant to be Christians,’ I said lamely. ‘And they were your guests. Also, in this case, nothing happened.’
‘That’s not the orthodox Christian viewpoint, as you know.’ He smiled suddenly, and I felt a rush of affection, and also of sympathy, for him. I suppose that must stand as explanation for my next weakness. ‘Of course I can’t expect you to share that view, but you can see, can’t you, why your grandmother and I must be upset? Unless, that is, they’ve decided to give up the practice?’ He cocked an inquiring eyebrow at me but, caught again off my guard, and with the memory of the previous night etched in my mind, I shook my head firmly. ‘I suppose there’s no point in my trying to do anything now. Would you mind if I wrote to her before she left?’
I shook my head. I am not sure whether I did not quite take in what he meant, or whether I was so relieved that there was not going to be an embarrassing scene that I was prepared to take anything instead. ‘It’s the least I can do in my position,’ he went on. ‘And I will tell your grandmother I’m going to, which should calm her down for the moment.’
‘I really don’t see what business it is of hers.’
‘Well, it wouldn’t have been if you hadn’t taken them to her house. But you can see she has some sort of responsibility now, can’t you? I mean, what if the girl gets pregnant?’
Remembering the scene at the tea plantation, I thought this an unlikely proposition, but for once I was sensible and decided not to blazon forth this bit of information too. ‘She could have rested content that it hadn’t happened in her house anyway.’
‘That’s not what it would have looked like.’ However my uncle obviously felt that this was not a sensible line of discussion, for he went on, ‘I suppose in theory they’re both Christian, but have lapsed?’
‘On the contrary. He has, but she’s a practising Catholic. Rather solidly so.’
My uncle sighed. Though in practice a staunch ecumenicalist, he still had certain fixed views about other churches. ‘So much indulgence. But I suppose we have to try.’ Then he turned and looked at the house. ‘It’s sad to think that all this will have to go soon.’
I am ashamed to say I grasped hurriedly at the opportunity offered to talk of other things.