A TRAIN DOWN THE KELANI VALLEY
The old ship, suffering from a long uncaring war, eased herself into a suitable position in Colombo Harbour before, with chains screeching and juddering, her anchors descended into the water to be driven deep into the seabed.
Here I was, nearly twenty-one, six months pregnant, sailing into an unknown and astonishingly green paradise, full of excitement and anticipation, seeing for the first time the land that was to be my home for the next five years. John was coping with the usual machinations of Customs and Passports, before we would be allowed ashore in a tender to collect our luggage from the crowded go-downs before joining friends for lunch in the colonial beauty of the Grand Oriental Hotel. After that we were booked on the train that would take us down the Kelani Valley to stay with John’s Uncle on Opaniake Estate, growing the best tea in the Ratnapura District. But first – lunch in that magnificent Hotel which I was assured lived up to its reputation.
Beyond the white pillars that beckoned us into its interior cool interior the world bustled excitingly by. Diminutive buffalo carts scuttled through the streets, as they must have done for generations, brushing close to ladies in saris, gentlemen in lappas keeping cool under black umbrellas, and everywhere bicycles, bustle and noise. The strident honking of horns filled the air, even above the shouts of the traders and calls of men harrying their buffaloes ever faster, as cars struggled to push their way through the throng.
Inside – potted plants trembled under the swish of fans moving the air just enough to cool the brow yet leave the lady’s hair in place. Discreet! Underfoot, elegant squares of marble – black and white – stretched the length of the long, wicker-chaired lounge. All about us calm, cool and unhurried.
The air was spiced with jasmine and cinnamon, moving towards the dining room I inhaled cumin, coriander and scents new to me. The staff was immaculate in white jackets and lappas, all wearing their long hair twisted into a sleek bun surmounted by a semi-circular ornamental toitoishell comb, usually carved and beautiful, called a condi.
Snow-white damask-covered tables were spread with dishes of every sort. From prawns to chicken, beef and fish, and vegetables I had as yet never seen in my life. There were bananas of every colour, mangoes, pawpaws, pineapples, mangosteens, jack fruit and rumbatums. With the austerity of war so near we could hardly believe our eyes at such a feast.
Sadly it seemed time had flown all too soon and it was time to leave. We collected our luggage, bade our friends farewell and took a taxi to the station. Willing hands grabbed our possessions and we followed in their wake as they pushed their way through throngs of chattering people to an out-side platform. There stood the tiniest train I had ever seen. It reminded me of a childhood toy that I had loved dearly; a small red engine pulling six tiny green carriages on the end of a length of string.
In this real train of ours the engine was snorting and spluttering as water was poured into its boiler. The carriages had no windows, instead there were slatted, wooden shutters, slatted wooden seats and, as we were about to find out – no shock absorbers! The carriage at the end contained all our luggage. We sat alone in ours. There didn’t seem to be many people on our train. The others had people hanging from their doors and windows with scant regard for their own safety, but not our funny little train. We wondered why, but presumed it must be the out-of-way area we were visiting.
Our engine wheezed into life, splattering sprays of sparks. Very soon my dress was full of small smudgy holes and the air was full of smoke. Every once in a while the engine retreated into strange gurgles as it applied its firebox to the job of coughing up its next belch of merit. We cheerfully chuntered on through the beautiful greenery of the Kelani Valley. That vast river, the Kelani Gunga wound its lethargic way through jungle and village, keeping everything lush and watered, the sides of the track thick with plantains, pawpaws and palm trees.
Before long sparks from the temperamental firebox became bigger and better. My dress was rapidly becoming a piece of lace. As I only had two maternity dresses I was getting anxious. In our luggage I had a shawl of little importance, so decided that when the train stopped at the next water tower I would run down to the luggage carriage and get it
“Don’t take too long” John warned, opening one eye from a lunch-induced snooze. But I knew I’d have at least ten minutes while the people stretched their legs, bought their oranges and kurumbas. And it took time to fill the boiler with water.
I found my shawl and stepped down from the rear carriage just as the train leapt alarmingly into life. I shouted – waving my arms and running towards our carriage as fast as I could – but no one seemed to notice me. A few Hawkers beside the track eyed me indifferently and then vanished into the bush. There was no station. No stationmaster and the water tower had no visible keeper. In a matter of minutes I was alone, terrified and trying hard not to panic.
The Hawkers must live somewhere. There had to be a village near by. I walked several hundred yards down the track before I saw a path leading into dense trees, a single clearing snaking its way through heavy greenery. It looked sinister, but anything was better than the railway line shimmering like a waterway in the mid-day sun. I wandered on, feeling that at every bend I would surely see a house. The bushes and trees stirred continually, though there was no breeze. Occasional ominous cracks made me turn to find a cause. I never found one. I never saw what so often sounded like a malevolent slither. I never saw the crows, but I heard them and they never sounded friendely.
After an hour I started to feel pain. My legs had swollen, I needed a drink badly and I was both frightened and worried. Tears were not far away. Then a few banana trees began to appear, then pawpaws, and a tidy vegetable patch; suddenly there was a thinning of the jungle, and through the trees I saw a bungalow. With tears now flowing freely I limped towards it. There were three wide steps leading to a deep verandah. I grabbed the rail and just managed the first step before my legs gave way and I fell.
“Is there anyone there?” I croaked. “Please help me – please someone!”
There were footsteps and an elderly man peered down at me. He was so gnarled he could have come from anywhere in the world – any colour, any nationality. He looked at me for about ten seconds and then, leaning on his stick, came to my side and slowly shook his head from side to side. I was obviously a surprise.
“Please.” I said “Please – may I have a drink of water.
“Of-course.” His voice was gentle “Can you get up? There is a comfy chair by the door – or a couch if you’d rather – but inside. Can you manage?”
With the aid of his stick and holding onto the railing we managed to climb the steps, and I found myself lying on a chintz covered couch with my shoes off and my feet being bathed. The old man had summoned someone I barely saw from the back of the bungalow, who came in with a glass of water and cold clothes for my feet. Before I knew it I had fallen asleep.
I know I woke up during the night, but I can’t remember wondering where I was or having any fears. My next conscious thought was smelling coffee, and I opened my eyes to a wiry little Apu offering me a tray of bananas, pawpaw, toast, a little pot of ghee, marmalade and a large cup of coffee. He bowed as he offered me the tray.
“Morning Lady. I am Apuhamie. Master be here soon. Lady eat!” He bowed again, gave me a great smile, his teeth red with betal juice, his eyes kind. “Anything lady wants – call – I will hear.” Another bow and he was gone.
I ate all I had been given, called for Apuhamie, who showed me a rudimentary bathroom, and then gave me some more coffee. All I could do now was wait for my benefactor..This gave me time to look about me. The room I was in was more like an extension of the verandah. The large glass doors seemed to be permanently open to the world. With heavy chairs blocking their path I doubted that they were ever shut. The floor shone with the ubiquitous Cardinal red floor polish that seemed so much a part of Ceylon. It was the custom for house-boys to enhance this bright red floor polish by rubbing it with halved coconut shells, achieving a quite miraculous shine.
The chinz on the chairs and sofa was old and much washed. There were no curtains. In fact there were no windows. Jalouses were propped open the length of the verandah, keeping it shady and cool.
Along the back wall were three door-ways, two closed by curtains. Their glass doors were hooked back and obviously never used. The centre door did not even have a curtain. It was a dining-room. I could see through to the verandah on the other side, where Apuhamie was sitting diligently polishing Master’s shoes. I was taking all this in when one of the curtains opened and my elderly host limped across the verandah.
“Aha! You are awake. Did you sleep well? Has Apuhamie looked after you? Good! –now that you are refreshed you must tell me how you got here. I seldom get visitors so you must forgive my impertinent curiosity, but you came as quite a surprise.”
I told him what had happened, and asked him if he had a telephone so that I could phone John and tell him what had happened and that I was safe and well. He would be searching for me by now. The old man looked thoughtful.
“You came by that path you say? How long had you been walking?”
“About an hour. It was the only path I saw. It went into the trees shortly after the water-tank.”
He nodded slowly and said – very pensively –
“Yes, there was a path there. I remember it. Apuhamie!” The little man came running.
There was a brief conversation in Singhalese that seemed to bother both men. Apuhamie was shaking his head, raising his arms in amazement “Aiya – aiya!” he cried.
“You were extremely upset when you arrived. Perhaps you were mistaken about the path you took?” He spoke as one would speak to a rather foolish child, and I found myself answering angrily.
“I know exactly which path I took. I’m not stupid.”
“No, no – of-course not. Forgive an old man for upsetting you.” He smiled gently.
“I used to work for the railway. Trains have been my life for nearly seventy years. We go back a long way, don’t we Apuhamie?”
“Apuhamie wagged his head from side to side and gave a big betal-nut smile
“A long way Sah – a long way”
“Once there were several bungalows here. We were railway engineers, but times change as railways do. The others went back to their native countries, but I stayed. I have a great love of Ceylon, and it had become home to me. True – I was born in England, but that is just a memory now. I belong here.”
He drew a big breath and got to his feet.
“I don’t want to upset you, but I must show you something. Come.”
Apuhamie came swiftly forward to take his Master’s arm, and we slowly descended the steps to the clearing and on to the vegetable patch.
“You came through here? But from where?”
There was no path. At one point there was an indentation into the trees that might once have been a path. I pointed to it.
Apuhamie clapped his eyes to his face. “Aiyoh!” he squeaked, and spoke rapidly to the old man in his native tongue. The old man nodded.
“Oh! child what are you saying? That path has not been used for over twenty years. It is impassable now. It used to lead to the old railway line, but is now quite unused.”
Panic was overtaking me. I felt wave after wave of deep shock. Why wouldn’t they believe me. This was becoming a nightmare. We went back to the bungalow. I felt shaky – ill. Once more the conversation continued in Singhalese.
“Apuhamie will take you out to the back of the bungalow my dear. Go with him, as perhaps it will help.”
We went through the dining-room, across the verandah, where I had seen him polishing the old man’s shoes, and across a clearing onto a broad path leading through coconut palms to farm-land .
“Come Lady, come. Apuhamie persuaded. “Is alright Lady – please.”
I followed him down the path, past farmers cultivating their respective patches. Apuhamie greeted them and they all smiled cheerfully back. Another five minutes.
“Nearly there Lady – nearly there.” We turned a corner and I found myself standing beside a long, shiny railway line. There were no weeds on this one. The water towers were elegant and modern. In the distance I could hear a train. As the sound got louder people gathered by the rail-side. Down the track, slowing for the water-tank came a train. A modern train with windows. The farmers by the track-side traded their wares with the passengers. The boiler was refilled with water and amidst a lot of shouting and waving the train moved on, gathering speed in the distance.
“That the Kelani Valley train Lady. No other train now. Other track all weeds, this the only train.” Shaking his worried head and muttering sadly under his breath, he took my arm and led me back to the bungalow.
When we returned, Apouhamie was sent on his bicycle to telephone Opaniake Estate to tell John what had happened to me. They told him at Opaniake Estate that John had never arrived.
The Doctor advised Mr Everett that I should not be moved. The shock would surely affect my pregnancy unless great care was taken. I lived in the second curtained room with little Apuhamie dancing in attendance. The two men saved my sanity. Young John was born in that bungalow and I’ve lived there ever since. Phillip Everett died quietly in his sleep when John was six. I have managed to give Apuhamie a little of the friendship and comfort he had given me.
We have electricity and a telephone now. I cannot leave. One day – perhaps one day that path will open again and John will come walking towards me. The family say I am foolish and must return to England where young John goes to school. He stays with my parents during the holidays, though he comes home to me every year. At sixteen he is talking about working for the railway when he leaves university. He wants to go to Cambridge, where Phillip Everett studied.
I stay here. Apuhamie is very old now. I think I am too.
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