Oddly enough, as my father was fading, the world of my other great rock in these last years, Ena, also shrank. In 2012 we had celebrated her 90th birthday in Yala, quite a large crowd though initially she had told me that she wanted only me and Shanthi Wilson. Of course she could not have dreamed of rejecting the rest of the Hard Corps of our younger days when they made arrangements for a larger party, but that may have been one reason for her losing her hearing aid before getting there. By then she had grown adept at switching off when she did not wish to be too involved.
She did not come out with us on all the rounds we did in the Park, but it was a happy enough occasion, and she seemed to relish the cake in the form of an elephant that one of our number produced, and also the book entitled ‘The Moonemalle Inheritance’ that I had brought out in her honour. The sister of her Moonemalle grandfather had been my great-grandmother, and we had often speculated on our common inheritance. We had reached the conclusion that what others might term meanness but which we thought thrift was the most important quality of Moonemalle blood. This was part of a characteristic we had identified in each other, which led us frequently to quote, approvingly, Edward Lear’s splendid characterization of Pelicans – ‘No such birds as fine as we…’
Ena lost her hearing aid twice that year, and was not at all inclined to come to Colombo to get another. I sensed, and she did not challenge me when I once mentioned the possibility, that this was a way to withdraw from the world. Though she still enjoyed company up at Aluwihare, she now preferred people to come singly or at most in pairs. She also moved from the grand room she occupied to the one opposite, which had provided palatial accommodation for guests. This meant that anyone who stayed had to be housed in the smaller room at the back. That was perfectly comfortable, with a lovely view to the hills behind, but she would claim that it was not suitable for most people. So she stopped hosting people who had been regulars in preceding years, including a German lady who had begun to demand accommodation for increasing periods once or twice a year, more often than not with a companion.
One person she was happy to host, for whom she vacated the grand guestroom, was Mildred Tao, with whom she had dealt over decorating the Twin Towers. Mildred and she had got on very well, and she had been hosted by Mildred not only in Singapore, the home of the company, but also in South Africa, when Mildred’s daughter got married there. I had not met Mildred previously, but she had obliged with a beautiful essay on Ena for the book I had brought out for Ena’s 80th birthday in 2002, ‘Gilding the Lily’.
Then however there had been a terrible breach. Ena had put heart and soul into decorating the Twin Towers, fantastic globes in the foyer, wonderful panels, and also two items based on what she thought quintessential Chinese themes. One was a delightful junk for the boardroom upstairs, the other a massive abacus. This, surrounded by 24 others, for of course Ena could not make just a single product, decorated the wall on the most impressive of the common floors.
Mildred had loved the decorations, but then her father came to Sri Lanka for the first time when well into his nineties, and demanded that the abaci be removed. Ena thought it was something to do with Feng Shui, but was too angry to check, and for a couple of years she hardly spoke to Mildred. But the latter was determined to make peace, and asked to visit Ena at Aluwihare, and this was agreed. But Ena asked me to be there, since she said she could not trust herself to be calm.
I got there the day after Mildred had arrived, and found the two ladies the best of friends, as though there had never been a breach. Mildred was as nice as Ena had said, and we too got on well, so well that the next morning I felt I could ask her what exactly had happened. Ena was not with us at the time, and Mildred said she was glad I had asked, for she sensed Ena wanted to avoid the subject whereas she felt she needed to explain.
Her father, it seemed, had loathed abaci, and she should have remembered this from her childhood. He felt that an abacus worked only if you pushed it, and he did not want to own a building where people had to be pushed to work. So he had ordered it be taken down, the moment he saw it at the Twin Towers. She did not think she could refuse, since she should not have allowed it in the first place, knowing of his prejudice.
I asked her then what had become of the abacus and, when she said it was in store, I asked whether I could buy it from her, with a commitment perhaps to return it if ever needed. She said she thought that was a wonderful idea, since she hated the idea of it lying idle in boxes. Ena had by then joined us, and I think she felt mollified by Mildred’s obvious affection for the entire creation.
Soon after I got back to Colombo, the Twin Towers management rang up and said that Mildred had told them to give me all the abaci. I was overwhelmed, but they noted matter of factly that transporting it would be neither easy nor cheap, and I would have to work out how to set it all up again.
So off I went to look at the stuff, and found massive boxes and beams in the basement of the Twin Towers. I felt overwhelmed, but Kithsiri assured me that putting everything together again would not be difficult, and said that his village carpenter was quite up to the task. I was a bit dubious, but I knew the man had done the most beautiful ceiling for the room I had built above the garage at my riverside retreat, and there seemed no harm in trying him out.
But I had too to convince my father that putting up 25 abaci on the walls of Lakmahal was a good idea. After transporting all the boxes home, and finding space to store them, most of them under my bed, I started small, by asking him if he minded a few going up on the wall next to the back door. This opened into the hall with the magnificient staircase to the upper floor. He told me to go ahead, and a few weeks later he told me that the abaci had grown on him. So I put up a few more, and then some others on the stairs, including the second largest. That beautifully filled the long flight of 11 steps, in between the two flights of eight and six respectively that flanked it at right angles.
All this was done by Kithsiri, with some help from other staff at home, but for the big one we needed Priyantha the expert carpenter, who obliged and managed to get it up in a couple of days. How he planned the operation and implemented it successfully is still beyond me, for he had to deal with three long cross beams, and two uprights, the latter standing on cement blocks since otherwise they would have been too heavy for any floor. Seven lovely discs had to be threaded onto each of the metal uprights, which had to fit into the grooves on the three massive wooden beams, going through the one in the middle.
But all worked out fine in the end, and Mildred approved, coming round to look at the abaci along with her two sons. And she was evidently not just being polite, for a couple of years later she called me and asked if I were willing to offer the junk a home. The company had decided to redecorate the boardroom, and there was nowhere else to put the junk.
I did not think for even a moment, and said yes. My sister wondered where I might put it, and I told her the dining table was a possibility, an idea encouraged by a couple of nephews and their prospective spouses for whom I had arranged a lunch. But, since my sister was inherently more conservative, and we now owned the house together, I felt that I had in the end to keep the junk in the privacy of my bedroom, so it would not impinge on the rest of the house.
By then I had decided that I would move upstairs, and I felt able to do this a year after my father’s death. Kithsiri proved invaluable as always, and inspected the junk at the Twin Towers and worked out how to take it apart and put it together again. So the junk came home and was reassembled in what had been my grandparents’ bedroom, the biggest upstairs by far, and indeed substantially bigger than the big bedroom downstairs. After setting it up, there was room too for the four poster bed my grandmother had given me when her old house in Kurunagala, the Old Place, was finally sold.
I had been deeply touched when she did this, for having lived together with her for longer than any other of her grandchildren, and having argued with her often, on my mother’s behalf as well as my own, I rather thought she found me difficult. But when I asked her why she had given me what I thought the most significant gift at her disposal, she simply said that she thought it was obvious. I realized then that she understood the link that bound me to both her and the most sentimental of her sons, the Bishop. They above anyone else in the family, except possibly for Ena, would have understood the rationale behind my having a 70th birthday party for Lakmahal, and publishing a book about it when the house was 75.
I wanted Ena to come and look at the junk, and she was looking forward to this. She was meant to come to lunch in July while in Colombo, having come down for much longer than usual when her daughter Kusum visited along with her family. But she fell ill then, and went into hospital, and could not make it, and in fact she never recovered from that illness.
I saw her in hospital and then often in Aluwihare over the next two months. I was lucky for, having not been put into Parliament after the August 2015 election, I had more leisure than anyone else, so could go up more than more busy people could. Once I was able to persuade her to come outside, which we had not done for ages, and we had a lovely evening on the lawn, as we had done so often in the past.
Shanthi and I went up on October 22nd, in anticipation of her birthday the next day, and found her in relatively good form. But then she collapsed at dinner, and never recovered. A few others came up on the 23rd, and we cut a cake, but it was clear that she simply wanted to rest. I sat with her for hours then, and realized she both knew she was dying, and felt ready for this. She told me at one stage that I should not be sad, for we had had such good times together.
I was not sure if I would see her again when I went back to Colombo, but knew she had full time nursing care, while her cousin Arjuna Aluwihare kept an eye on her from Kandy. There were ups and downs over the next week, but in general she seemed to be improving. But then, on the 29th, just before I set off to go down south, I was told she was sinking, and there was no one else able to be with her.
I set off immediately, and found that she was unconscious, and oxygen was not reaching her lungs. Arjuna however said that she would sense I was there, so I stayed with her, and things seemed better that evening. But the next day her condition worsened, and I told close relations they should try to get there. That did not prove possible, but fortunately a couple of nieces who lived in Matale came round to see her, and were there as she faded. The more sensitive one realized she was dying, and left when things became critical. But the other stayed, and was with me while I held her hand as she left us.