Sam’s Story

August 30, 2009

By Elmo Jayawardena

River House

I came to work at the river house not so long ago. It was a few years before the world turned 2000. Two thousand to me is a nice sounding number, that is why I remember, like twenty-five. I know the exact month too when all this started. It was the mango month. That is how everybody in our village called it – mango month.

We always had our own names for the months. That way it was easy to remember how the years came and went. Mango month, raining month, dry month, mangosteen month, first month, last month and so on it went. Mango month was when there were more green mangoes than green leaves on the branches of the mango trees.

That’s when I first came to the river house.

‘Can you cook?’ the Master in the river house asked me.

‘Can you iron clothes?’

‘Can you do the marketing; buy vegetables, buy bread, buy beef?’

One after the other the questions came, like thunderclaps.

I could never figure out why people asked me so many questions. Maybe they thought I knew all the answers to life. Even when I stood at a bus stop, someone would ask me some stupid question.

‘What time will the next bus come?’

 People always asked me things like that. How would I know when the next bus is coming?

‘When did the last bus go?’

That is a real stupid question. I wouldn’t be here if I had been at the bus stop when the last bus went, would I?

Some even ask me, ‘Are you waiting for a bus?’

‘No, I’m waiting for a boat,’ I would mutter softly under my breath.

 I think people like to ask questions. I don’t mind that. But why pick on me? I don’t like questions. As long as I remember, it had been that way with me. My life has always been simple. No questions, no answers. Just take it as it comes.

I never looked for answers in life. What’s the point? They would seldom be the ones I want them to be. No, I never worried about knowing what the answers were. Maybe that is why I didn’t like questions.

‘How old?’

‘What do you do?’

‘You have brothers? Sisters?’ People would ask me. Those were rather the common and easy ones.

There were more difficult ones too.

‘Are you a fool? Are you dumb?’

Yes, they asked me things like that. What can I say? Even if I am a fool, do you think I will say yes? How many dumb people do you know who would say they are dumb? See what I mean about these questions? Asked for the sake of asking. That’s why I don’t like them. That is why I do not like when people ask so many questions from me.

The funny thing is when some idiot asked me something, I would take some time to answer. Then he would keep looking at me as if his very life depended on what I said.

There were some answers I knew for sure. I had two sisters, two brothers and an old mother who tapped rubber to put food on our table. That’s the only reply I gave to anybody who asked me questions. That part I was sure of. The rest of it was always so vague.

‘How old?’

How would I know when I was born? I was too young to note and remember. But then again, nobody told me about how and when I came to this world. Even if they did, I would forget.

‘What can you do?’

What a stupid question. I can do so many things. How to list? I have lived this long in my life doing many things. Of course these people who ask me questions always look at me in a strange manner. If I do not answer they get annoyed. If I answer and if my reply is different to the one they expected, they look disappointed. They stare at me in a funny way. Somehow this makes me feel that I am confusing them. I am used to it, like so many other things in my life. Sometimes I think I am different. Often I feel so. Maybe that is why they give me strange looks.

Even when I first went to the village school, I remember the same look.

At the beginning, the old teacher and some of the children who came from other villages looked at me that way. I have seen it so often I even have an idea what it is all about. I think this look belongs to people when they see me for the first time. It takes awhile for them to get used to me. No, no, I am not ugly, definitely not as ugly as Leandro. Its got nothing to do with the way my face is. Maybe it is the way I speak. Sometimes some words spit out of my lips with a hissing noise, like the air pump in the bicycle shop. ‘Shu shu shu,’ some noise like that.

 Back in my village, they never do that; I mean the funny look business. Must be because the people in our village were used to me. I grew up there. They were always there and I was always there.

Our villagers were not strangers, not first- timers like the schoolteacher and the children from other villages, or like my new Master in the river house. Well, that is not my story. I am as usual jumping rails. What I mean is that I started telling you about this new river house and my new job as a houseboy and went in a circle about the strange ways people look at me. How stupid!




My new Master in the river house was no different. The first time we met, out came the questions. First he asked me whether I could cook and all those kind of questions I mentioned at the beginning. Then he came out with some special ones.

‘Have you worked before?’ The Master asked me.

 I said ‘yes’ and told him all about Madam Martell and her house in Colombo. She was a white lady from a far away land who had a thin tall white husband who played cards all the time.

‘How old are you?’

I told him twenty-five, the number always sounded nice to me. I like twenty-five, same as two thousand.

Then the Master wanted to know how long I worked for Madam Martell. I told him twenty-five again. He gave me a strange look and laughed.

 ‘Did you go to work straight from the hospital?’ The Master asked me and then he laughed out loud.

I didn’t know why, but I laughed too. Anyway, I got the job. He said I was in charge of everything in the house.

‘Sam, I am the Big Boss here,’ he gestured with his arms opened wide like a platform politician and laughed again. I also kept laughing.            

‘You can call me Boss.’

‘You are the Small Boss,’ he gestured again, still laughing and this time going in a smaller circle with his hands. We both continued like that – laughing together.

We must have appeared like two mad men, he in his own joke and I in my ‘no’ joke. Big Boss and Small Boss, each laughing away for his own reasons, with the other not knowing why or what it was all about.

Life was easy in the river house. I was the ‘Small Boss’ as the Master said. I did everything. I swept the garden; I watered the flowerbeds and the lawn. I washed the cars. I opened the gate when the cars came and closed the gate when the cars went. I fed the dogs and switched on the house and garden lights in the evening and switched them off in the morning.

The lights were simple to remember. Down is “on”, up is “off”.

I loved that business of switching lights. There were so many lights in the river house. I don’t know why, but most of them we never used. They were fixed everywhere and they came in all kinds. Bright ones and dimmed ones and even small ones that gave more darkness than light. They all had different switches.

Down is “on”, up is “off”. Easy, how to forget?

There were so many lights in the garden too, in different colours, hidden in the flower bushes. They made the garden trees glow blue, red, yellow and green. The lights were very badly hidden. Though you couldn’t see the bulbs, you didn’t have much problems knowing where they were. The glow in the garden bushes gave away where the light bulbs were hiding.

I think it was a bit stupid.

 Other than switching lights, my favourite job in the river house was watering the garden. I loved the long yellow hose and the sprouting water. I would open the tap, drag the hose near the plants, aim and fire. I could make various patterns with my big finger and send the water flow any way I chose; hard, soft, wide, narrow, anything. I loved that.

I would send the water hard on the anthuriums. I didn’t like them. They looked vulgar, with that thing sticking out as if it had been having dirty thoughts. But I was always gentle with the shoe flowers. I liked their colours, bright and cheerful, like my mood when I watered the garden.

Every afternoon, I would watch the sky like a hawk, looking for clouds and rain. I didn’t want to miss my watering. I didn’t mind the rain, I could go out and yet water the plants in the rain. But the Madam said it was useless.

‘Don’t water the plants when it rains, Sammy.’

She never told me why.

My Master’s house was big. Everything there was big; the garden was big, the river was big. Even the room where Leandro cooked was big. Leandro was not my friend. He was the cook in the river house. Leandro was short and ugly and was a bit stupid. He belonged to the other kind. So was Janet, the housemaid. But Janet was not like Leandro; she was a little better. She hardly spoke, just did her work and combed her hair whenever she had nothing to do. She had very long hair, always oiled and always combed. Janet wasn’t bad looking either; she had those things, a bit jutting out from the front of her blouse, but always well covered.

 Leandro and Janet were both from the kind that made war and killed soldiers and threw bombs at our leaders. I didn’t like them. If I knew I had to work with their kind, I would not have come to the river house. But I was here; I couldn’t go back, nothing to go back to in the village. That’s another story, I’ll tell you later about that part as I go along.

Bhurus was my best friend. He was the dog in the river house. He was a boxing dog; brown and black lines on his skin. Bhurus had no tail. I think some stupid man had cut it when he was a baby dog. He now had a little stump that he wagged with vigour whenever he saw me. He was very ugly, with a big ugly mouth and no nose. But I loved Bhurus. He loved me too. We spent a lot of time together. Every time I called him ‘Bhurus, Bhurus, Bhurus’ the Master’s daughter would come shouting.

‘No no Sam, it is not Bhurus, it is BRUTUS.’

She would make her eyes big and give this funny growling sound; she called it rolling. She would start by tightening her mouth and extending her lips into a small round hole saying ‘brrrr-ouuuuu’ and then go ‘TUS’ like breaking a stick. ‘Brutus, Brutus, Brutus,’ she would repeat the sound for my benefit.

I never could get that funny sounding name. After awhile she gave up. She stopped trying to correct me whenever I called my friend. I am not sure but I think she knew I was right. Once or twice I heard her ignoring her round mouth “ooos” and stick breaking “tusses” and calling my friend the way I did – Bhurus.

Bhurus of course didn’t mind. I don’t think he cared very much about this business of how he was called.

When I said ‘Bhurus, come, come,’ he came. I think he liked my name better, Bhurus.

The other dog was Lena. She was beautiful; she was tall and had a brown shining coat. Lena didn’t run around like the stupid Bhurus. She minded her own business and slept most of the time. In her own way she was nice. Bhurus and Lena were my friends. They didn’t throw bombs. They didn’t kill any people.

I liked my Boss’s house by the river. It had a large garden.The outside was painted white and the inside had different colours for different rooms. The floor was red, polished red, lines this way and lines that way, all in perfect squares. That was downstairs. Upstairs had wood on the floor in some places and tiles in other places. I do not know why that is. They must have run out of tiles and finished the job with wood, or they may have even run out of wood and finished the job with tiles. Something must have run out but they managed nicely. Not just mixed, but room by room, some wood, some tile.

 There were bathrooms everywhere in the river house. Each bedroom had one. We had ours next to the garage, for Leandro, Janet and me. I was the one who cleaned them all. That’s how I became a good bathroom man.

The inside of the river house was big, so many different sections, different rooms for different things. To eat, there was one place, to talk, another place, to watch television an entire room, to read books, another place. At the beginning I always got confused with all these separate sections of the house. Back where I came from, in our village, most houses had only one room. We did everything there, within four walls. I mean not real walls but more like half -rotted planks, but no confusion. The river house was a different place; too many rooms.

The area where the river house people ate and sat to talk and drink, the walls were painted nicely in a cream colour. But for some reason they were all mostly covered with something or the other. There were many pictures hanging on them. Each one pasted in a wide wooden frame. Some were glass covered, some just plain. There were paint pictures of all kinds; of flowers and trees, of hills with blue skies and seas with black skies, of ships sailing and birds flying; all kinds of pictures. There were women too, white women in big pictures; beautiful, shy women with their dresses falling from their chests or lifting above their knees and showing those shy parts of their bodies. They only showed little, maybe half, not the real thing, not worth hanging on a wall and looking.

 Where there were no pictures, there were so many other things covering the wall. No wall was empty. There were small carpets in bright colours, larger carpets with dull colours hanging by long nails. There were shining brass curved knives and long brass swords, all fixed to polished wooden planks and stuck on the wall. In some places there were ugly looking masks and in other places there were many pictures of their God.

One wall was filled only with pictures of the family. Those pictures were all when the children were babies and the Master and the Madam were young. I think they have taken the good ones and put them there to make the Master and Madam look good. Young and pretty, black hair and thin and always smiling.

That’s how the walls were in the river house.

Even the pillars inside the house had various things hanging on them.

Now you get an idea what my new house was like? Let me tell you more.

The riverside of my Master’s house was all glass; large glass windows on wooden frames that rolled to the sides on noisy little wheels. We could move the windows out of the way and open the house to get the river breeze. When the windows were rolled out, the river could be clearly seen by anyone sitting in the living room.

‘That’s how we wanted it Sam, to look at the river,’ my Boss told me that.

I don’t know why they wanted to keep looking at the river. It was the same river; it flowed slow and looked the same everyday.

The house had chairs everywhere. There were chairs to sit and drink, chairs to read newspapers, chairs to watch cricket matches on television, chairs to relax and look at the river. It was like the rooms; almost everything had its own special chair.

There were many bedrooms too; each one in the house had their own sleeping place. All except Master and Madam and Leandro and I. We are the ones who shared rooms. Master and Madam had a big room that could be cooled. Leandro and I had a smaller room, but no cooling. Master’s daughter, the Girl, had a room and so did the Master’s son, the one I call the Boy. Our Janet too had her own. Her room was the tiniest in the house, just big enough to keep her small bed and her old green canvas bag where she kept everything in the world that belonged to her.

My room was nice; I mean our room – Leandro’s and mine. It had a large window and I could see the river and see the fishing boats as they went past our house. All that was good. The only problem was Leandro. I hated sharing the room with him.

Most things he did annoyed me. I hated when Leandro washed and hung his multicoloured lankets. His normal washing he hung outside, but his lankets he always hung inside the room as if he didn’t want anyone to know what he wore under his sarong to protect his things. Leandro had a string drawn right across the room to hang his lankets. They hung on it to dry. Red, green and all colours, they hung there like dead bats. Big holes for the legs, a big hole for his fat waist and a little piece of cloth to hold his things. Those were his lankets, constantly dripping water and wetting our room floor; hanging like dead bats on current wires.

I had to be very careful when I walked, I didn’t want that cloth to touch my face, specially the part that held his things.

There was another problem that bothered me in sharing the room with this fool. Leandro farted. I have never seen someone who farted so much and so loud. Leandro’s farts varied and had their own tunes. Some slow dragged “ppppeeeee” like a note from an old snake charmer’s horn, and others went “boom” like gunshots. It was annoying.

I hated his farts, I hated his wet lankets, and I hated him. Anyway I had no choice; Leandro remained my roommate, though many a time I secretly wished it was Janet.

The garden of the river house went all the way to the river, all grass and many trees. Many trees meant many leaves fell. I had to sweep many times to keep the garden clean. In no time I became a champion garden sweeping man.

 At the beginning itself our Madam very seriously told me everything about sweeping the garden and what to do with the dirt. ‘Sammy boy, don’t put dirt into the river, collect them into the garbage bags.’ She always called me Sammy boy.

I don’t know why she was worried about collecting dirt into bags and not throwing it all into the river. We always did that in our village. She spoke as if the river would mind. Every time she saw me sweeping the garden she kept repeating the same thing.

‘Sammy boy, don’t put dirt into the river.’

One day no one was at home. I swept the entire garden and collected a lot of dirt, mostly fallen leaves. I threw all that into the river, just to see what would happen. Nothing happened. The dirt got swallowed by the water and drifted down. I carefully watched till it all disappeared. I wanted to tell the Madam that nothing happens when you put dirt into the river. But Janet stopped me.

‘Don’t be stupid Sam, don’t tell them everything that happens here.’ That’s what she said. I didn’t want to be stupid.

She said it is better we take dirt in the garbage bag to the place where they dumped all the rot. That was fine, it suited me. It was I who mostly went in the van to throw the garbage bags. I always enjoyed those van rides. I got selected to do them fairly and squarely. That is what Leandro said; democratically, he used these big words. I always won the vote to carry the garbage.

Come to think of it, voting was big among the three of us. Leandro Janet and me, we voted on everything. Leandro said that is how things are done when you need to do things properly. You vote. He said our leaders always got voted to run the country. That was big stuff. Ours was small, kitchen vote, but to us it was very important. Most times I lost, so what? I didn’t mind. Sometimes I also won.

Every evening we voted in what language we would watch the television – Sinhala or Tamil. It was our television, fixed in the kitchen. Leandro would take a box of matches and pick three matchsticks. He would break them in two and give each of us both parts. Stick only and stick and black. He would then take a cup and tell us to throw in the cup our vote. Stick only is Sinhala, stick and black is Tamil. We threw our choice and he shook the cup up and down like a magic man and poured the result out. I do not know how, but it was always a Tamil win.

 But sometimes I too won the voting. I noticed that it happened mostly when Janet was not in the competition; it was about things like who takes the garbage and who cleans the toilet. The competition was strictly Leandro against me. But all three voted. It was democratic. I am sure at such times Janet voted for me and I got elected. I beat Leandro every time. Many times I did get the feeling she had a soft corner for me. She was nice. But the problem was we were different. Janet was from the side that threw bombs.

They both told me that we must not tell the Madam about our voting.

‘We must sort things out democratically, like our leaders,’ they explained very seriously.

That was fine. I kept my mouth shut. Democratic voting was fine with me. I won some and lost some. In the ones I won, like cleaning the toilets, sometimes I got all three votes. Even Leandro voted for me. The ones I lost I didn’t mind, specially the television. People on television always spoke so fast. I could never understand what they were saying or what was going on; never mind in what language it was said.

Harrison too was a big player in the river house. He drove the vehicles in the river house. It was through him that I came to work for my Master. Harrison’s older brother drove a “tuk-tuk” three-wheeler in the city and this brother’s woman was from our village. My sister Loku and this woman went to school together. That’s how Harrison came to know of me and arranged the job, all by connections.

 Apart from driving, Harrison took care of everything that needed to be done that was beyond Janet, Leandro and me. It was always Harrison, for things the river house needed from outside its walls. Inside, it was the three of us.

‘Harrison go there, Harrison buy fish, Harrison go and pay the telephone bill, Harrison bring the carpenter, Harrison bring the plumber,’ that’s how the outside orders went.

He was good at getting things done. My Master always called him “Friday Man” even though he did things everyday of the week.

Harrison came in the morning and went in the evening. He had a house and a family who lived not so far away. He was the one who drove the van when I went to drop the garbage.

Sometimes Harrison stayed the night when Master and Madam were away and only Janet, Leandro and I were in the river house. He got extra pay for that. That’s what he told me. Nice job; got paid to sleep. He was the boss when Master and Madam were out. I mean he was the real boss. I was the boss for the work. Leandro was nothing. Only a stupid cook. Janet of course is a woman, so she never counted.

I almost forgot. It is the Master’s son, the Boy. After Bhurus and Lena, he was the best. He was a tall pretty boy, always smiling. From the very first day we met he liked me and I liked him. He was the one who spoke with me most in the river house.

‘Sammy, what’s the scene?’

That’s what he always said.

‘Sammy, how’s it going man?’ – that was his next line.

We did a lot of things together. We went in the boat, we went in his car, we sometimes caught fish together, many things. There was always something happening when the Boy was around.

Often we used to wear hats and go in the rowing boat. It was a long red boat with two seats. The Boy had named it “Solitaire” and that name was written in big yellow letters in front of the boat. The Boy rowed the red boat and I sat and watched. That’s the way he wanted it.

‘You relax Sam, I’ll row, it’s good for my muscles,’ he grinned and repeated the words often.

I always enjoyed going in the boat with him. We spoke about a lot of things. He rowed and spoke and I mostly listened. It was quiet in the river, nobody disturbed us. There was no noise, only the waves slapping on the side of our “Solitaire”.

He used to ask me about my life in the village. What I did before I came to his father’s house. I told him many things, about my home, about my mother tapping rubber, about my brothers Jaya and Madiya and my two sisters Loku and Podi. I also told him about my friend Piya and how he drowned the day the river overflowed. I told him whatever I could remember. I kept some back too. My mother had told me not to talk about them.

 The Boy always said that when he grew old he would take me to work for him. ‘Don’t worry Sammy, I’ll take care of you.’

I knew he meant it.

My life was always full when the Boy was at home. He had many friends and they came often to the river house. We had a lot of fun. His friends were also like him. They laughed easily and they didn’t give me strange looks. I think the Boy had told them that I was his friend. That made it easy. That is how his friends became my friends.

My Boss’ two children came to the river house only for their holidays. The Boy and his sister were learning in a far away land. Like Madam Martell’s land; very far. You have to fly there in a thing called the aerobblane; too far to walk, too far even to go by car. Harrison told me that. He mentioned some name for the place, but I have forgotten.

That was how life was for me in the river house. I had three good friends, Bhurus, Lena and the Boy. I had more than enough to eat and a nice room to sleep. No problems, just days that passed nice and simple. My time was spent in switching lights, sweeping the garden, watering the plants, opening and closing the gate, things like that.

I had only one enemy, Leandro and one half-enemy. No, that is not right. Janet was not half, maybe a quarter enemy, that too only because she was from the other kind.

Even both of them put together would only be a very small problem.

My life never had real problems. I could never figure out what a problem was. That’s why I never had problems.

Copyright © Elmo Jayawardena
Vijitha Yapa Publications


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