=1 "Earthman"

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by Maggi Lidchi

When his system began recovering from the trauma of its sudden deprivation it was Ramakrishna who suggested that if Christopher were not drinking this was no longer the place for him. He gave him the address of a Vihara where the monks took in people who needed a rest. There was a garden there.

Christopher said yes, a garden was a good idea. But he had no idea of what to do about it. Life had taken him unawares. So Ramakrishna packed his suitcase and put him in a taxi.

He was courteously received by a bald monk who listened in silence to the story which Christopher told with great effort. It was a dull story really, and Christopher felt sorry for dragging this quiet man through it.

The Buddhist monks fed him and looked after him for five days and then decided to send him on to Ayrishwami of Elegana, a village near Jaffna. Ayrishwami had agreed to their written request to take him him.

Christopher didn't know who Ayrishwami was or that Jaffna was in the north of Ceylon. He let himself be put on a bus filled with quiet Tamil businessmen going north to the Hindu area on a pigrimage. He let the bus conductor put him on another bus filled with fishermen coming from the market. For the rest of his life he remembered his continuous gagging at the smell of their empty baskets.

When he got off the bus he had to walk, and was passed from a fisherman to a clerk to a coolie who left him and his case with a servant in a cluster of half-a-dozen houses on the edge of a coconut grove. The servant salaamed him with joined hands and scampered away into the largest hut, the only one with its own garden and kadjan fence.

Christopher looked around. The well-kept flower beds and the neatly swept sand-paths were the first signs of returning order since he had left the Buddhists. A man was standing at the gate of the hut of the main house. He wore glasses, was powerfully built, bare to the waist, dressed like a native. He came towards Christopher with joined palms. “Good day to you,” he said with a British accent. Christopher's eyes went from the flecks of dark pigmentation which dotted the broad fair-skinned shoulders to the abundant copper-coloured hair. This really was an Irishman. He had about him the air of a chief of one of the great clans. He stood looking at Christopher through rimless spectacles. The red hairs on his arms gleamed even in the soothing spent light.

“Are you Irish Swami?” he asked with a stir of something like curiosity.

“I am.” He led the way to the entrance of his coconut thatched house. “You'll find it easier to sit down if you take your shoes off.”

Christopher kicked his shoes off, looking into the room, and Irish Swami bent down swiftly to range them neatly together. Christopher watched the broad freckled back in embarrassment. This man was at least fifteen to twenty years older than he was, but he made Christopher feel worn and used up, untidy. It was the first time anybody had produced a reaction in him in many weeks, and it encumbered him heavily with the almost forgotten sense that he was responsible for how he looked and behaved.

Irish Swami made coffee in silence while Christopher sat on the mat and looked around. There were no chairs, only mats and a table lifted a few inches from the ground by stumpy legs. Apart from this there was a bookshelf. The papers on the table were in neat piles. There was one drawer at the bottom of the bookshelf. Nothing else in which to conceal untidiness. The ceiling was held up by palmira poles which met the bare beams. Above that rested a double layer of kadjan thatch. In spite of its barenness the room was marked by a high degree of civilization. Perhaps it was the predominance of books or the fine quality of the cement or the smell of clean wood and rose petals from freshly spent incense sticks. Whatever it was Christopher felt lumpy and ungainly, as though he and the shabby, bulging suitcase defaced the room. Irish Swami came back from the entrance of the back courtyard where the kerosene stove stood. He put a cup of coffee in front of Christopher and got himself into a cross-legged position on the floor without using his hands. Christopher drank the coffee aware of the holes in his socks. He also tried to tuck his feet under himself, managed one but sloshed coffee on the floor.

“Who are you?” asked the Irishman while Christopher mopped the floor with a greyish handkerchief. The man had a right to some explanation if he were going, for some reason, to take him in.

Christopher explained. He spoke for five hours. Sometimes Irish Swami gave instructions to the servant in Tamil, but otherwise he listened without moving, his eyes lowered.

Christopher had to move. He shifted. He rubbed his ankles. Sometimes he had to stand up and walk about in spite of the holes in the toes of his socks, but he did not stop speaking and eventually he forgot about the holes. He had never had anybody listen to him just this way – without laughing, sympathising, showing surprise, delight or fascination. This was passive listening, almost grave, like a steady flame into which he threw everything. Old letters, manuscripts, programmes, anecdotes, souvenirs, trunkfuls of them. He couldn't unload quickly enough. Three times he thought he had come to the end, but always as he was going to say Well, that's just about all, and once when he had already said it, he found something else, another vivid fragment that would explain his life.

Finally he muttered in the unsure tone he had started with, “I think that's about it.”

The red-haired man lifted his head and looked at Christopher. “Who are you?” he asked in exactly the same casual, matter-of-fact way he had done hours earlier.

Oh no! Christopher looked around. Was he locked in one of those static illusions again? But he wasn't drunk. And it wasn't static. He could remember the sequence of the day and yesterday and the day before that. It meant that he had been speaking to a nut. He had thought the room and dress were only some sort of eccentricity.

“But I've just been telling you,” said Christopher, too discouraged, too tired to play a madman's game. By what dented logic had this man spent hours pretending to listen?

Christopher had come all this way for nothing, and all he wanted to do was sleep. He was too tired to pretend.

“You've told me where you were born and who your parents were and all about your wives and your ambitions and your failures, but who are you?”

Christopher stared into the man's bronze-coloured eyes. “Well, that's all I know. I can't tell you more than I know, can I?”

“Ah, then you admit there's a possibility you don't know?” What sort of man was it who could ask these questions of someone who had been travelling all day and trying verbally to relive his live for hours on end?

“I think I'd better find a bed somewhere and get some sleep,” said Christopher wearily.

“There are no beds here. We're free of beds here. Down with the furniture makers.” The man pointed a broad thumb at the mat and grinned wryly. It was fast turning into a scene from Alice in Wonderland.

“You're not the Mad Hatter by any chance?” asked Christopher, deciding to sink into the confusion.

“Exactly who I am.” A hand covered with fine hairs rested approvingly on Christopher's arm. “Come, I'll show you your room. And I'll teach you how to sleep in it.” Irish Swami got up in that effortless, unwinding way. “But first we'll get something to eat.” Christopher's welcome of this last suggestion was disproportionate. He had no need for food, his appetite not having returned. However, he had just heard the first unqualifiedly reasonable utterance since his arrival; something which almost anybody might have said in the circumstances.

(From the book Earthman just off the press [1967])