A sudden hiss somewhere behind him startled Upul. He stopped sharply in his tracks in the darkness, his breath coming in short excited gasps. He pressed himself against a wall. Fear made his heart thud in his chest. He shut his eyes hoping that whatever was pursuing him would not see him there.
At his feet was the huge drain that ran through the slum garden where he lived. He was now standing in the deserted part with the wall on either side shutting off slum land from the road and the affluence of the world outside. There was a foul smell here, from the choked drains, blocked with months of effluence from the slums. The stench did not bother him. He was used to it. The smell and the sight of human excreta, mixing with the thick foul water, carcasses of dead rats…these he did not mind. He had lived through these all of his ten years. He was used to many things, an old man of ten years, with the body of a five year old.
Suddenly he saw the intruder. Two bright green eyes stared up at him from somewhere near his feet. Two luminous spots of colour, much like the lamps of those new cars he often watched flying on the road outside. Upul relaxed suddenly, let out a long, relieved breath and smiled down at the cat snuggling against his feet. This was his beloved cat, his Patiya, the one thing in the world that really belonged to him.
Bending down to stroke Patiya he almost forgot the packet of heroin clutched in his right hand. But no. He had to be careful with it. He placed it in his shirt pocket clasping the cat to him all the while.
‘I love you, little one, I love you…whatever happens to the world outside, we will be together always, always,…’ he murmured, his face hidden in the soft fur, his arm round the plump little body.
He did not know where the cat had come from. He found it wandering in the slums. Perhaps it had strayed into the slum garden on a nocturnal prowl, stalling a rat or a bird let loose in a careless moment. He must be a good hunter, Upul thought, stroking the plumpness. He seemed to have got all the food he needed.
Upul was not so lucky. He even forgot when he had his last meal. No, that was not true. He had had some bread and weak tea at the tea kiosk where he worked during the day. Sirisena, the owner of the kiosk, was kind to him and sometimes he even gave Upul a plate of rice, with a little grated coconut and a bit if fried dry fish.
Today he had not had much to do till night came. Then it was a case of waiting at the bus stop, waiting for the man to turn up, the man with the precious kudu for his father waiting at home in the wheel chair, greedily looking forward to his kudu…..
Upul was getting used to his routine now. First to the bus stop, from there to the school garden on the other side of the town and another wait in the dark, under cover of the large mango tree overlooking the deserted playground.
Upul hated him – this man who provided the kudu to his crippled father. Every cent the old man earned carving those wooden ornaments and coconut shell handcrafts till his fingers were dried and parched…most of what Upul himself earned helping in the tea kiosk hour after hour, this man grabbed it all, in exchange for the kudu.
Upul hated the secrecy of it all. He was afraid. He knew why he had to hide and meet the man in secret. The police were wise to the things that happened in the slum garden. Sometimes they say that the police themselves are involved…. He knew that the police often came late at night his neighbour’s house. Jamis had a comely wife and a pretty teenaged daughter. Jamis never did nay work but there was always money in that house…and he spent money quite openly and lavishly on kudu…Jamis was not afraid of any policeman.
But not so Upul. Upul was terrified. Sirisena, who liked him had told him what policemen did to people in those cells when they were caught smoking pot or breaking the law in any way.
‘Sometime they just take people in…people they don’t like…they don’t have to break the law. Haven’t you heard those screams when you go that way past the police station…keep out of their way, Putha.’
Upul took his advice seriously. But what could he do? His father craved the kudu and he just had to get it for him. Otherwise? Otherwise… he really did not know what would happen. He could not think beyond that.
Still clutching the cat, Upul felt his pocket. The packet was there, safe. He stepped across the drain gingerly and ran between the shanties towards home. Night sounds were breaking the stillness around. Dogs growled, cats wailed, babies whimpered, women groaned and there was also the terrible sounds of desperate sobbing at the death of a beloved son somewhere in the North. There were sounds of endless quarrels…endless and hopeless… a terrible medley of living.
His little feet were swift as they fled across the dirt and filth of his neighbourhood. Water stagnated in smelly pools. He stepped over these and heard a curse form inside as he stepped on some pots and pans and they clattered against his running feet.
‘Where is it? Did you get it? Give it to me,’ hissed his father as he set foot in the verandah of his home.
Carefully Upul put the cat down and took the packet from his pocket and laid it on his father’s wizened palm. A light came on in the old man’s desperate eyes and a glow of happiness slowly spread over his features, transforming them into a leer of greed. Upul watched, standing two feet away from his father’s wheel chair, and felt a revulsion that seemed to block his throat with a foul taste making him want to retch.
Upul hated his father.
Suddenly his mind went to his mother. She had been a gentle voiced woman. Her bosom had been soft..so soft…his face had snuggled in that softness a thousand times, when he was little. But that was before she stated to cough…later there was no bosom at all, only a flat emaciated skeleton coughing on the bed, sometimes spitting blood. So often, as he passed that bed, averting his eyes, a thin white had would stretch out wavering towards him. He had pretended not to see and run away. Then later there was not even coughing, but a dreadful hissing sound from the bed, day after day, till one day everything was still.
Strange, he had no feeling about her. Today was not the past, not even the past when he could snuggle against something so soft and so feminine…today was today, with its own routines. Suddenly he sniffled…he thought he could get the smell of his mother from somewhere.
I must never leave you, father, never, because then there will be no one to bring you your precious kudu..however much I hate you and hate the whole routine, I must not leave you…
How can I? When I too know what it is like to take pinch of it, caress it lovingly, place it in the fold of a piece of paper and inhale it deep, deep into my soul, so deep that the world explodes in your face and beyond there is a beautiful place with a gentle sun, stars and light, a lovely golden world with no cares, no rumbling stomachs…a world of love and gentle rain…I know what it is like, father, I know…
He had gone into that lovely place as often as he dared, for all of two months. And then the community workers had come. They were all from the affluent world outside the slum, speaking in English and with shoes on their feet. The lady who came to his house had a kind face. She smiled at him but spoke sternly to his father.
And then they took him away. This was another world of people who were going to cure him and make him a good citizen. There were many others, some were addicts. But he was a curiosity.
‘So young…hm…only ten years old, eh?’
The bearded doctor had said, lifting his eyelids and looking deep into his eyes.
There was food there, all three meals. They made him bathe every day and wear fresh clothes. Maria, the young girl with golden hair and blue eyes was his special friend. He knew she came from some other country. She was different, so keen on getting him and the others cured.
Sometimes the doctors laughed and one told another that now Maria could quickly fill her project book and get back home to England…
But Upul liked her. She had a soft voice though often he could not understand what she was saying. She gave him new clothes, picked the lice from his head and cut and shaped his hair. She even gave him some sweet smelling soap. When he rubbed the soap and swished the bucket of water from the well on his satisfied little body. He felt that he had gone to some other world.
Perhaps he had died and been born again, he wondered!
There were so many of them. Twenty year old Nimal had been a desperate addict. Once he had gone to a Family Planning clinic and got himself vasectomised to collect the incentive payment of five hundred rupees. He had lied about his age. He could do that as he was so emaciated and drawn, his skin parched and his eyes sunken. He looked an old man of sixty…will I look like that too, a sudden fear flashed across Upul’s brain.
Nimal was kind to Upul. Often at meals, a surreptitious hand would pass him a tasty morsel or a piece of fruit. Poor NImal, he had been to school and worked as a room boy in a big tourist hotel where a passing tourist had induced him to a whiff…that had been the beginning. Now what?
‘My people won’t even come to see me…they have had enough of me. I hate them!’ he had once told upul. But his lips had trembled and his eyes had filled when he said. I think he loves them, little Upul thought to himself.
The temple grounds where The Cure was being held was deep in the countryside. A sprawling temple set in a vast coconut plantation. The land seemed endless to Upul. In the mornings the sun peeped above the coconut tree tops. In the evenings it went down in a flaming fury lighting up the land. The days were enchanting, even with the medication and the misery of withdrawal. Upul had never been anywhere like this. He had time to look around and breathe deep of the clean, fresh air. Here there were no filthy drains blocked with human excrement, no growling, half starved animals, no ruffians to threaten him and most of all, no crippled father ordering him to a terrible tryst with a drug peddler.
‘Where the hell have you been all these days..I had to pay extra to get the kudu here…all this nonsense taking you away…These rich women have nothing to do…..go, go, don’t wait here all day. Go and get it. Go now!’
He had gone. He had waited at the bus stand , walked to the school yard, looked at the animal face of the man he hated even more than his father and come back with the packet as his father waited, a greedy animal tied to a wheel chair.
That day something happened which changed Upul’s whole life. That was the day he found his cat
with a gentle miaow and a soft body. They became soulmates, he and his cat. They were on the same mission, to live. They became inseparable.
He hugged the cat as he lay on the bare floor in their one roomed shack in the slum. He listened to his father rambling on and on. The effects of the kudu were dying.
That night Upul dreamt that his father had got up from his wheel chair and walked towards him. He bent his face and his eyes became bigger and bigger till they were two large balls of fire.
Upul got up panting. Nothing had happened. The cat slept close to him. His father slept, head lolling, his useless legs inert, his hands still. Upul gazed at the worn face, the skimpy grey wisps on his head, the sweating body and felt a moment’s pity. Poor father, he said, to himself, going to his mat and the warmth of his cat.
Next morning he listened to the sounds of his father spitting and coughing, grumbling about his sleeping late. Upul ran to the kiosk, brought him bread and tea. As his father stretched a greedy hand towards he food, Upul felt a fresh loathing towards him. The compassion of the previous night had gone. This was a new day, a new day meant a new night, a new night, another tryst.
All day he ran errands for Sirisena, fetching water, boiling it, making tea, washing cups, serving customers. He could have worked willingly on and on…he so wanted the day to last so that night would not come.
Inexorably it came. A pall of darkness lay on shantyland. Other sounds took the place of the hustle
and bustle of the day.
The man in the wheel chair waited. His son looked at him, stretched his hand out for the money and ran out of the house. The cat slept. The man gritted his teeth. He could feel his son’s hate, see the loathing in his eyes. He wanted to strike at him, see the blood spurt out of wounds he had inflicted on him, hear his groans in pain and perhaps die…
He looked at his hands. They were emaciated. But they had strength. All the years of shaping wood,
carving them had kept his hands in good shape, even as he lost life in his legs. The hands were strong and lithe and occasionally he had snapped a piece of wood in two with his bare hands. He looked at them now, his eyes stroking them fondly, evil taking over his mind.
Suddenly his hands relaxed and fell into his lap. Then he saw the cat asleep close to his chair. In sleep there was something sensuous about the cat, the way he lay curled and still, his even breathing lifting the soft fur in an endless rhythm….
The man was not at the bus stop. Upul walked to the school yard. He was not there, either. Upul waited, walked back to the bus stop and back again to the school grounds.
‘Where in the world wre you, you little wretch. I have been walking up and down here for so long.
I thought you were never coming,’ the man grunted coming out from behind a bush.
‘Where is the money? Give me the money…’ he counted the money into his palm and then Upul took the packet and sauntered back to the main road. He did not run. It wouldn’t do if someone saw him running. A policeman especially. He would chase him and then you know what would happen…vivid memories of what Sirisena had told him flashed uneasily across his mind.
He crossed the drain in the dark and walked past Jamis’ house. Today there was laughter from inside. Jamis was in an excited, happy mood. Upul pressed himself against the wall and waited till the guests had left and the fun had ceased.
As he came to his verandah, he could see his father in the wheel chair, his head lolling in his usual posture of sleep. Suddenly Upul’s foot struck against something soft. Bending down he saw the cat.
It was dead.
The animal scream that came from somewhere deep inside the recesses of his heart must roused the old man. Waking up, he stretched his hand out for the packet, his face lit up by and inhuman leer. As if by a magnet, Upul’s eyes were drawn to the hand stretched towards him. Those hands, they were tough, wiry and strong, such a contrast to the rest of his useless body. Upul was mesmerized by the hands, the claw like fingers, now clutching in the air, now clenched, now open, fingers that had the strength to kill.
Upul’s eyes strayed from the hands to the scrawny, useless neck that supported the face that now leered at him in an agony of impatience. An animal rage and hate welled up in Upul’s little body.
He wanted to stretch out his own hands, clamp them round the neck and grasp it till it had lolled for the last time.
But no. That was not what he did. He stood where those hands could not touch him. As tears of agonising loss flowed down his cheeks, he took the packet of kudu from his pocket and opening it, poured its contents on the sand at his feet. Some of it sprinkled on the dead cat. He did not even hear the old man’s frustrated screams as he hugged the still warm body of his friend and vanished into the night.
(from ‘Eleven Stories’ a collection of short stories published by the Women’s Education Centre, Sri Lanka in 1988).