From the First Chapter - Make a Wish
I was allowed to pack two of my toys for our Christmas holiday to Sri Lanka, but wanted to take more so my cousins and friends could see what I played with in England. My shoeflower-red pyjamas were still too long for me and I had to pull them up while I ran about collecting dolls and teddy bears. After emptying my cupboard and shelves onto the bed, putting big toys at the back and small ones at the front, I looked at everything to choose what to carry on the plane. Most of all, I wanted to take the walkie-talkie doll I’d just got for my seventh birthday. She was too tall to lie down in the holdall and had to sit with her head and chest sticking up. Dad wouldn’t let me take her like that. He wanted all zips closed and cases locked. I thought about pulling off her legs to make her fit in but Dad said he wouldn’t fix her if I broke her again. I lifted her out with both hands and put her back on the bed, then ran around choosing smaller toys until Mum called me from the hallway.
“Rohini. Are you dressed?”
She came thump, thump, thump, up the stairs. My heart started beating fast. I quickly shut the bedroom door and stuffed my Sindy and Russian dolls into the holdall, pushing them near the bottom to make space for more toys and games. Mum’s footsteps were getting louder and a floorboard creaked. She must have been on the landing. I shoved in my Stylophone, a paint box and a ball of string for playing cat's cradle, then squeezed in a hot water bottle cover that looked like a dog, forcing it down so I could do up the zip before she came in.
I was too late.
The door opened wide and she stood there, hands on hips, giving me a funny look. I looked back at her, as if I hadn't done anything wrong.
“Is there something you want to tell me?” she asked.
“No . . .”
I stood in front of the holdall. It was no use. She took it and emptied it on the bed. Out tumbled everything I’d packed.
“Two toys,” she said. “We need space for clothes and gifts we’ll bring back.”
“I can’t separate them. They’re a set.”
She picked up the Sindy and Russian dolls and left the poor puppy dog behind.
“You’ve broken his heart,” I told her.
“It’ll mend.” She kissed the top of my head. “Off you go and wash.”
“Post has arrived,” Dad shouted from downstairs.
I jumped up and down. I’d been waiting days and days for a letter from my grandparents, kept waking early to see if they’d sent me their news. “Mum, do you think Appa and Amma will have written to me?”
“Sooner you get dressed, sooner you’ll find out.”
I ran to the bathroom and washed with the rose-scented bar of soap because my mother would feel it afterwards to see if it was wet. She could also tell if I just threw water at the soap and didn’t use it. As soon as I had my vest and jungies on, I tried to go downstairs. Mum pointed at the skirt and jumper she’d put on my bed. God gave me a mother to look after me, but he never meant her to make me get dressed when I was in a hurry to do something else. She watched as I went towards the door. Her mouth wasn’t smiling and she pushed her eyebrows up. I gave in and put the skirt and jumper on. It wasn’t going to be for long, anyway. The next day I was going to be in Sri Lanka, wearing summer dresses and not winter clothes.
I sang, “Jingle bells, jingle bells. Join in, Mum.”
When I was older and had children of my own, I was going to let them do anything they liked even if they wanted to sing while getting dressed. I wriggled while Mum tried to plait my hair so she put it in two bunches instead. Her hair was long as well because we both liked to look Sri Lankan.
“You can go,” she said. “That’s all I can do while you’re like this.”
I rushed down to search the post on the hall table. Sometimes my grandparents sent an envelope with a letter and postcard of a sunbird inside, sometimes they sent a thin blue airmail form.
“Is there anything for you?” Dad asked from the sitting room.
“They’re all for Mr and Mrs Palar.”
“Keep looking. You never know.”
I read names on the envelopes, letter by letter but all the post was for my parents. There was nothing for me. Appa and Amma had forgotten to write and I wanted to hear their news then, not wait until we saw each other in Colombo. I carried on searching anyway and was about to give up at the bottom of the pile when there it was: an airmail with my name on the front and theirs on the back. I hugged it to my heart and gave it to Dad while he sipped tea. He took a long drink then put his cup on the nest of tables.
“Sure you don’t want to open it?” he asked.
“I might tear it.”
I jumped onto his lap and leaned my head against his shoulder. He gave me the letter.
“Do you want to try and read it?”
“I can only read proper writing, not Appa’s scribble.”
He kissed the top of my head and laughed. I touched his long fingers as he ran them across the top of the letter. “Mum says you could be a concert pianist if you want.” He thought about it but didn’t say anything. “She said you became a lawyer, to send burglars to prison so they won't break into our house and steal my toys.” He took a slow sip of tea, licked a drop off the corner of his mouth and began reading. His voice was quieter than when he read me bedtime stories.
14 December 1972
Dear pretty Rohini,
Your grandmother and I are very happy to know we’ll see you soon. We miss you all and look forward every year to your Christmas visit with us. This holiday is going to be special because the Temple tree is full of flowers and a Loten’s sunbird has made a nest in the top branches. Remember, darling girl, our family has always stayed together while there is a sunbird in the garden.
I crossed my fingers and made a wish for the bird to hang around so we could live again in Sri Lanka with my Appa and Amma. They sent me their love and said they were going to keep the letter short or they wouldn’t have any news to tell me when we arrived.
And don’t worry about Saraswathie and the other servants. We're taking good care of them, although our new maid got homesick after a week and went back to Jaffna. So we've hired a houseboy from a family of Veddhas.
“What’re they, Dad?”
“They’re the first people of Sri Lanka. They used to live in forests and rocks and hunt for food. There aren’t many left. They’re disappearing fast.”
I hoped the houseboy wouldn't disappear before we arrived, so I could tell my friends I'd seen a Veddha.
“Did Appa and Amma go to the forest to find him?”
“Most Veddhas live in towns now. Only a few stay in the wild.”
“I’d like to go to the jungle.”
“Maybe we can take a trip there if we have time.”
Mum came in and sat next to us, saying, “I’ve finished packing, Nathan.” She asked him to read the letter again but she didn't really listen; she looked at the bamboo wallpaper then the stone-colour carpet. When he stopped reading, she looked at him and said, “I feel like I’ve forgotten to buy something.”
He rolled his eyes. “Good grief, Uma. We’ve a suitcase full of shirts and shoes to take for this person or that one.”
“Did you tell Tara we didn’t get her fridge?”
“I'll enjoy telling her in person.”
Poor Tara Aunty. She can't have known a fridge was too big to put on a plane or she wouldn't have asked us to bring one. I hoped Dad wasn’t going to be rude when he told her off for being silly, or she wouldn’t invite us to her parties.
He was still holding the letter. He liked to read it to himself when he was on his own. Mum had to cheer him up afterwards with a cup of orange pekoe tea and a joke.
I couldn’t stop thinking about our holiday and was going to do all I could to make it the best ever. “I’m going upstairs,” I told my parents. I knelt at the foot of my bed, shut my eyes and put my hands together, thinking carefully about what I was going to say. The Lord was ninety-four years old and got grumpy if he was asked to do too much.
“Hello, God. I’ll pray for the poor people tonight, and I know I'm not supposed to ask for myself but I’d like a few favours from you. They could be your Christmas present to me. First, could you tell your angels to keep the sunbird safe in Appa’s garden so our family can stay together? And if it’s not too much trouble, can you ask Jesus to keep an eye on Amma in case her arthritis is bad again? And then if you’re not ill with flu, please tell the airport not to lose our suitcases as my presents are in there.”
I was also going to ask him to make Mum change her mind and let me pack more than two toys, but it wouldn’t have worked because mothers can do what they want. I waited for him to tell me which of my favours he was going to say yes to. He didn’t answer. He must have been in hospital having a knee operation. He was so old he should have retired, like Dad’s boss, and let Jesus speak to children instead. I said the Lord’s Prayer anyway, so he’d see I knew it by heart but instead of keeping my eyes shut, I peeped at the puppy dog Mum was making me leave behind. I was going to tell her she made him cry. I gave him a goodbye kiss and said I’d bring him a present from holiday.