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The steps down from the jetty were a little rickety and the iron handrail had corroded in several places, but the ground was firm. I stood on the beach and breathed in. I felt elated: this was the moment I had been waiting for. Even the breeze was warm.
I followed a footpath littered with dead urchins and broken crabclaws and climbed up to the hotel overlooking the bay. The gate at the top wouldn't fully open and I had to squeeze past a giant screw-pine; one of its thorny leaves scraped the sea that had coated my arm. In front of me a blue plumbago shrub exposed a few pale flakes broken off the moon. A yellow light on the garden terrace blinked and went out. I crossed the strip of lawn not knowing quite what to expect.
The Palm Beach Hotel, I had been warned, was thirty kilometres from Maravil and the only other hotel open to visitors; it had no brochure and no guaranteed amenities.
When I reached the long, low building I could seethat the paint on the outside wall had cracked and peeled; a trail of blisters ran down one side of the portico and the wooden beams of the veranda were warped. The hotel sign had not been repaired.
I brushed the sand from my shoes and pushed open the door, careful not to touch the loose glass in the frame. I rolled my case into the foyer feeling a little nervous. The floor was made out of coarse, uneven granite and the small plastic wheels fixed to the bag rattled over the bumps; there was no other sound. In a corner, behind a desk, I noticed a receptionist asleep. His narrow face had crumbled at the edges; his tunic was unbuttoned. I waited at least a minute before gently rapping on the counter.
'I have a reservation,' I said in slow English.
The cowls over his eyes slid open. He stared at me.
'From the Sea-Link Corporation,' I added, trying to be a little upbeat. I had a fortnight confirmed with an option to renew, indefinitely if I wanted to. I had been told there was very little business these days anywhere on the island.
Opening a large ledger, the receptionist flicked a page over. 'No,' he grunted. The lids slipped down again, leaving only a pair of narrow slits through which he watched me. 'We have no reservation.'
I started to panic and fumbled around for my papers.
'You want a room?' he asked then, as if issuing a challenge.
'Yes.' I found my passport and the booking docket. I offered them to him.
He riffled through the documents. After some time he relented. 'Maybe one, but no discount.'
He pushed the passport back to me, together with a registration card and a faded tariff sheet. While I filled in the card, he inched out from behind the desk. He was a small, scrawny man and seemed to have some trouble with his foot. He limped down a dim corridor. I quickly signed the card and followed him.
The room he led me to was the last in the line. He switched on the light; it barely made a difference but I felt relieved. The bed was large - king-sized - and solid; inviting despite the mangy blue coverlet. He pointed at the shrouded windows. 'Sea view.'
A gecko emerged from behind the frosted lampshade fixed to the wall.
'Good,' I nodded. The boat I had travelled on would have left by now. It wasn't due back again until the end of the month. 'I'll take the room,' I said, 'at least until the next boat.'
He made an odd guttural sound and then stared at my bag with his head awkwardly lowered. It took me a while to realise he was waiting for a tip. I handed him a ten-dollar note. The foreign exchange made him, briefly, almost garrulous.
'Pool, minibar.' He jerked his thumb and pivoted, cracking his joints. 'Breakfast not included. Extra charge.'
'OK,' I said. That was not what I had come for. I had not wanted to cruise in on a cut-price package deal, full-board or half. I was on a mission to explore an older terrain and discover for myself what was best to remember, and what might be better to forget, here and in my life. I would have told him so, but he looked much too sullen and worn-out to care.
After he left, I drew back the curtains and opened the windows to let the sea breeze in. There was no air-conditioner. It suited me; I wanted to know what a night in a hot country was really like. To hear the crickets and the cicadas, to smell the citrus and the citronella, the warm earth dreaming, and feel the spirit of the place brush against my skin.
My grandfather Eldon had warned me, as I was growing up between the fig trees and rat-runs of a rowdy, congested London, 'You must decide for yourself how you should live in this world. Like a flower seeking light, we each go where we find our best sustenance. Yet in reaching out - free as we are - we have to be careful not to lose more than can ever be gained.' He would lecture me in his sheltered garden, pruning his roses, watering his delphiniums, trying to pass to me the lessons of what he called his extended innings, while I trained my ears to the roar of aircraft coming in to land, one after another, at nearby Heathrow. He was gravest when he spoke about my father's undertakings. 'We have a choice, you know, and sometimes that is hard. Sometimes we have to choose between people and places, the sky and the earth. War and peace.' He lifted his large, wavering hands as though he wanted to admonish my dad - his absent son Lee, the ace air warrior - through me, and I watched as though Eldon was my absent father: each of us occupying the other's empty space.
Both my father and my grandfather had been quick to escape their formative traps. Eldon by coming to England from this apparent pearl of an island, and Lee, fifty years later, by leaving England, his birthplace. I never had the same compulsion to move - until the day my father's voice returned and urged me out.
* * *
In the morning, I woke up hot and hungry. The glare from the window flattened the room. I wondered what the rest of the place looked like in daylight. I changed into my shorts and went in search of breakfast.
A couple of parasols had been put out on the terrace and two waiters were squatting down by the pool. I ordered the local menu and was served a plate of raw roti, some red desiccated coconut and a glass of sour undrinkable juice. I asked for bottled water and was given a jug. It was probably permanent hunger, or some parasite in the gut, that made the staff seem so unfriendly, but I didn't think of it then. I just felt disappointed.
Most of that first day I spent adjusting to the heat and the humidity. It was something I had only ever experienced before in horticultural glasshouses, and it was difficult for me to believe that the temperature was not temporary.
Inside the hotel I walked around in a daze, ducking into the dingy comfort of the arcade room every half hour or so to punch a bunch of pinball buttons and swill another glass of iced lotus-brew. The atmosphere, even in the aromatherapy room, was absolutely stultifying. Nowhere did I see any sign of other guests. It didn't surprise me, given the warnings about civil strife, oppression and levels of residual radiation; quite apart, that is, from the service.
Late in the afternoon I dipped into the shady saline pool to cool down and recover the plans I had hatched on the boat, or even earlier, while I was still wired to my home-web, looking for news of this forgotten, assaulted island; or listening to my father's last recorded words.
When I got out of the water, I heard the buzz of a small aircraft and saw a military plane disappear behind the ailing cassias. Although there were no obvious transport facilities at the hotel, I was still confident I could find a way to visit some of the places Lee and Eldon had been to on their one and only journey abroad together. The journey that had changed my father's life.
He was seventeen when he first came here, brought to spay his respects to the ancestral land Eldon himself had spurned for decades. They had visited graveyards and sleepy suburbs; they had done a grand tour of the country which Eldon recounted time and again over the years. 'We went everywhere: the wildlife reserves, the ancient cities - more ruined now than ever before - up to the cool tea-hills, and then down through miles and bloody miles of those damn low-country coconut plantations.' I still remember how Eldon would pause and then mock me with his calypso version of my juvenile dub, 'Whole generations went to pot, you know, chasing the golden bloody coconut ...' But, despite ridiculing the coconut kings of those days, his fondest recollection of that trip was the hunt for an ancestral home in his so-called low-country: a farm cottage in a twenty-acre coconut estate where he spent his holidays. He would conjure up the house for me. 'It had a thatched roof, and whitewashed walls. A sand garden with lantana shrubs and bougainvillaea. Hundreds of butterflies. And a breadfruit tree. I loved that place, my little Eden, so much more than the big manor house that our lot liked to pretend was the family heritage.' Sometimes he would bring out his crinkled maps and show me the web of journeys that held him and his son together, like a memory of paradise, after their return. His brown finger would trace their route along a network of red roads as though he was trying to soothe the veins of a lachrymose eye. 'We looked all over for that little house I had loved, but it had disappeared. The shape of the land itself had changed. Political gerrymandering had played socks with every bloody thing. I couldn't find my way. But looking for it, you know, was almost good enough ...' He never returned to the island.
My father, on the other hand, seemed to have seen something that the older man could not. Something irresistible that brought him back, again and again. First to meet my mother, on her first long-haul holiday; and then again for their honeymoon; finally it brought him back in the middle of a war, for ever.
On my second morning I got up earlier, before the heat became unbearable, and took a walk outside the wails of the hotel. A broad strip of macadam meandered up to a sentry-point. I noticed the flash of mirror-light as a gun, or camera lens, hidden in the pill-box caught the rays of the sun. Although there were no soldiers to be seen, I didn't go any closer.
In the other direction, about five hundred metres down the road, was the village. I was keen to explore it, imagining that perhaps there I might discover the hidden charm of a long-suffering but colourful land.
I found a few ramshackle bungalows and, within the ramparts of an old fort, a pockmarked shopping mart boasting a drug store and a couple of bazaar stalls with some trinkets and a few essential dry goods like rice, flour and soap. Hardly any people were around. Inside a bakery, I spotted a couple of women in muted saris and a solitary man in a sarong, his shoulders drooped as though the blades had been ripped off. I tried to talk to them - English was supposed to have become the common link language along the coast - but no one was willing to speak to me. The women quickly retreated, and the man simply stared at me as if he had been hypnotised. The sense of subjugation was something I had not expected on an island so infused with myth and mystery. This was a place, it seemed to me then, devoid of any joy past, present or future. It was impossible to imagine what the attraction could have been for anyone.
As the days passed, I began to feel disheartened. The sun seemed cancerous on my skin, and the water was starting to feel too hot for swimming, even in the dark. I thought, if only I could reach one of the famous sites Eldon had talked about I might gain some satisfaction but there seemed no way of getting anywhere. I didn't have any proper information on where I could travel; I didn't even have an up-to-date map, only historical charts. Nothing else had been available. The hotel staff, when they deigned to appear, were hopeless. The receptionist would always summon the bellboy whenever I asked about excursions. 'Try village, sir,' was the bellboy's refrain, and he would scratch his ear violently whenever I complained that nobody there even bothered to listen.
'What about the jeep?' I asked the boy one morning, having seen him drive it into a garage. 'Can't I hire it?'
'Not possible, sir. Special approval required.' He put the keys in his little brown box and banged down the lid.
Nobody was able to tell me who gave 'special approval'. Even the barman at the cocktail hut pruned his lips and withdrew into his shell when I tried to question him. Perhaps I should have learned one of the local languages before I came, but I don't think it would have helped. It seemed I was in a place where conformity, or silence, was the only safe strategy for survival, and ignorance a kind of haven.
I was so disgruntled I spent the rest of the day trashing the decrepit minibar in my room. This could not be the same island that Eldon had talked about, that my father had loved, that I had read so much about. I had seen no animals, no birds, hardly any life. The trees, the plants, the buildings, the land, everything was drab. That evening, when I emerged, I banged into the drinks trolley parked at the poolside and knocked over an ice bucket. I ordered more lotus-brew and a packet of mouldy buns and derided the barman. I was too sozzled to care what he thought of me.
I felt thoroughly ashamed the next day and wanted to apologise to him. I looked all over the hotel; I couldn't find him. There was nobody around to say sorry to.
I decided then it was time to pull myself together and do whatever I could on my own. Six days had passed since I had landed. There was no point in hanging around. I thought I'd go into the scrub, at least, and see what I could find there. Explore as far as I could by foot, if nothing else. It was midday. The heat was searing, but I felt it had to be now or never. Walking, at least, was not forbidden. Any restricted area, I reckoned, would be fenced off or something. The rules would become clear, if there was a danger of violation; that seemed to be the way programmes ran everywhere.
I headed for the outer ramparts of the village. A dusty dog, stretched out in the shade, roused itself briefly; there was no other sign of life. A hundred metres beyond the old walls and piles of rubble, I came to a path that led down to a small sandy cove.
Excerpted from HEAVEN'S EDGE by ROMESH GUNESEKERA Copyright © 2002 by Romesh Gunesekera
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.