'I always made it my business, at least, to know the part thoroughly'
A Wise Child
A name is the first story that attaches itself to a life. Consider mine: Stanley Alban Marriott Obeysekere. It tells of geography, history, love and uncertainty. I was born on an island suspended midway on the golden trade route between East and West - a useful bauble, fingered and pocketed by the Portuguese, Dutch and British in turn. In 1902, when I was born, Sir Alban Marriott was Governor and he agreed to be my godfather. How could he refuse? He had been in thrall to my mother ever since she sent him the skin of a leopard she had shot, along with a note. I shall call on you between five and six this evening. The skin is for the small blue reception room, which is ideally suited to fornication and whatnot. Her name was Maud and she was a great beauty. Also a first-rate shot. In Scotland she had stalked deer with the Prince of Wales; his performance, she reported, was mediocre. He presented her with a brooch fashioned from an eagle's talon mounted on silver and onyx. Mater dismissed it as monumentally obvious and palmed it off on her stewardess in lieu of a tip on her voyage home.
My father insisted on calling me Stanley, although my mother hated the name. I have often pondered the significance of Pater's uncharacteristic resolve. His father, too, was a Stanley, so he might simply have been affirming family tradition. On the other hand, might his assertion of my paternal provenance betray some anxiety about it? My mother had a certain reputation. It was alleged that she once swam in a jungle pool wearing only herbloomers, even though there were gentlemen and snakes present. Half of Colombo society followed the lead of Lady Marriott, who was stout and afflicted with shingles, in cutting her dead. Mater said Stanley was fit only for a peon, so it was just as well my initials spelt Sam. These days there is no one left to remember that I was ever called anything else.
Stanley Alban Marriott Obeysekere: between the names that define me as my father's child falls the shadow of an Englishman who didn't serve a second term as Governor. Shortly after his death eight years ago a package from a firm of London solicitors found its way to my desk. It contained a small murky oil painting of a large and largely unclad female gathering flowers and berries against a backdrop of broken marble columns in a woodland glade. The artist - quite unknown to the works of reference I have consulted - signed himself Tom Baltran. The executor's letter accompanying the painting explained that the Baltrans and the Marriotts were cousins. Moreover, it continued, the Hon. Thomas was descended on the distaff side from the first Dukeof St Albans, Charles II's illegitimate son by Nell Gwynne. The artist's hefty nymph was held, in family lore, to represent the orange-seller, but this was purely speculative. Sir Alban, wrote his solicitor, was most anxious for this painting, the gem of his small collection, to pass to you. He retained the warmest memories of his years in Ceylon, and often referred to happy times spent in the company of your mother.
An ambiguous legacy, wouldn't you say? I keep the painting in a cabinet, along with Sir Alban's other gift, a silver eggcup presented on the occasion of my christening. Now and then I set these objects before me and study them. An egg, a mistress, a bastard son: their message seems unequivocal. But the testimony of signs is unreli-able. Within minutes I have reasoned that an eggcup is a wholly conventional gift on the part of a godparent, and that the Hon. Thomas's daub points only to the ill-judged sentimentality of a nonagenarian. The argument prevails for a brief interval; then doubt creeps in again. These sessions always end the same way: I cross to my mirror where reassurance waits in the solid evidence of my flesh.
If you wish to ascertain a man's lineage, read his face not his birth certificate.Myskin is as darkas myfather's, our branch of the Obeysekeres being famously black. Like Pater, I am of average height and inclined to portliness in age. We share a high forehead, thick, springing hair, a curved nose and assertive ears. We are not handsome men. But we have presence. Whereas Sir Alban, as he appears in my parents' photograph album, is tall and hollow-chested, with pointed features and an entirely unconvincing moustache. He clasps his left wrist in his right hand, holding himself together.
By now it will be apparent that my pen is not constrained by decorum. I have always set great store by the truth, a virtue not usually prized in my profession. But it was my ability to see accurately and to speak the truth, without concern for convention or fear of reprisal, that made my name in a different sense. The very notoriety of the Hamilton case has seen it shrouded in the fog of rumour, conjecture and misinformation that passes for analysis in the drawing rooms of this country. In these pages I intend to set down the facts of the matter at last.