The Commonwealth Short Story Prize has announced the five regional winners from Africa, Asia, Canada & Europe, Caribbean, and the Pacific regions. In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta is publishing each of the winning stories online this week. This selection showcases the exciting emerging talents, writers who bring a thrilling and essential glimpse of the world and the worlds that are within Britain. Today we bring you the winning entry from the Asia (Sri Lanka), Michael Mendis’ ‘The Sarong-Man in the Old House, and an Incubus for a Rainy Night’, and an interview with the author, which you can read here.
Wijey remembers being sixteen, how difficult it was. He is now at the very edge of his sixties, sitting on a sloping armchair with armrests that could swivel to become footrests. And now, so many years after being sixteen, he thinks, that the smell of new rain also had a note of innocence to it. Maybe it’s his own innocence as a boy who found hope in the smell of rain-on-dust that he remembers, that he associates with the smell of rain-on-dust now.
That girl, wherever may she be now?
Wijey brings his trembling, dying fingers to his lips, fiddling absently with the dry flakes of skin there, picking at them. A habit he carried to maturity from immaturity – like an old seller of wares, bringing home a load he was supposed to trade away for something better.
I say his fingers are dying because he is old. Because he is and alone. On that sloping armchair.
But more because there is no turning back for him.
It was raining that night, a little more than half a century ago, when he sat in his bedroom, teaching algebra to Krishnan, a newfound friend.
Wijey remembers this now in the darkness of his corridor, with the green paint on the walls. And nothing else, but for the shadows.
The rainy day ghosts.
They were both boys, and Wijey had no idea of the things he was about to discover beyond that night, but that’s not what moves him the most about this memory. There is, in most of us, a stolid self-pity of sorts, when we think of things that broke our hearts when we were still just children. But more, much more, when they break us somewhere else. A place without a name, for now.
And Wijey taught him carefully, what he knew – navigating the various X and Ys, cautious not to overwhelm.
Wijey was a rich little boy, unlike Krishnan. With a lot of books lined against his bedroom wall, the Dickenses and the Flemings on two opposite sides. His shiny prefect’s badge from middle-school, sitting primly on the dresser, next to the bottle of Old Spice he never wore because he didn’t like the smell. They were all there: little pieces of imported wealth that he had arrayed around himself, in case anyone wanted to know why he was important.
When the lesson ended, Wijey’s mother convinced Krishnan to stay the night, because it was not safe to drive in the storm all the way to Wattala, where he lived. She said it would probably last all night, the storm.
Their dinner was brought up to the bedroom in a large tray. The woman carrying it, Prema, was quiet and brisk, and Wijey called her by name without any hesitation. While they ate, she laid out Wijey’s spare pyjamas for Krishnan, and fresh towels.
‘Do you want more parippu?’ Wijey kept asking him. Or ‘Shall I put some pol sambol?’ And they talked about the radio shows and music, and Rukmani Devi, and the Hepburns. Krishnan looked up at the ceiling as he talked, a funny habit he probably outgrew. The Hepburns, he couldn’t stop talking about: those two women, being so different from each other. He kept saying, ‘It’s Audrey’s body, machan . . . that shape,’ and he would have used a word like exquisite, had he had access to it, to describe what he meant.
Wijey didn’t like being called machan. And Wijey didn’t like talking about the Hepburns. But he didn’t say anything. He sensed there was something to it, this dislike of the topic – but only in the way one would see soft tendrils of smoke seeping through a door. It wasn’t a fire, an inferno, if he didn’t open the door. It was just a stream of smoke, leaking. Harmless. At least for the time being.
They talked into the night, with the rain hammering outside, about things that only barely snagged Wijey’s attention. Something else kept him talking, wanting to talk, but all of it was still shut behind the door that screened the streaming smoke.
He kept the windows open, and tiny vapours of rain sprayed into the room with the smell of dissolving dust and, soon, it was time to go to sleep.
Wijey’s days stretch and inch into each other now, with hardly any movement in the house of green walls, but for the shadows, starting short in the mornings, and gradually reaching across the floors and furniture, along the route the sun took across the sky. Like a sundial, marking time and undulating memory.
But everything in the house seems alive, their movements all in an equal speed, an equal rhythm. The furniture, the shadows, the thick dust. The man.
Wijey climbs the stairs forever, a walking stick clutched in his fingers, his sarong held in a clench of cloth around his waist – undone, slipping, unhelpful.
Nobody is here. Nobody has remained.
The wooden stairs creak. The walking stick seems to bend. He palms the wall to balance himself.
While he forgets the sarong.
And he is naked, instantly. One hand on the wall, one hand on a bandy stick, in the middle of his stairs.
The sarong, a bangle around his ankles.
Krishnan, Wiley remembered, had rather long hair then. After his bath, before they went to sleep, his hair covered his ears, fell lightly on his forehead, curled along the curve of the nape of his neck.
Wijey was moving about, clearing his bed of books and debris, putting the Classics back in the places they were used to, straightening the textbooks edgewise on his desk. But it’s the corner of his eye that was most clever, as he sees – almost accidentally but not quite so – Krishnan coming out of the bathroom in the gleaming white towel Prema had given him.
Wijey’s forearms turn cold.
He begins to fuss even more with the books that are now geometrical on his desktop. Something had happened. There was the largeness of Krishnan’s shoulders, still wet with bathwater. There was the shut bedroom door, and the sudden privacy between the two of them. There was also a nervousness in Wijey. A discomfort. An excitement. Shivers on his fingers that could have been named by any of those things, or all of them.
Krishnan dries his hair with a second towel, roughly, completely unaware that Wijey is suddenly uncomfortable. His shoulders, and the muscles on his arms, work furiously as he rubs his head dry – and Wijey, with his head lowered to his dresser, watches, gulping. One index-finger running absently, up and down, along the edge of his dresser-top.
He says, with some difficulty, ‘You – you shouldn’t have bathed. It’s late. Raining also.’
Krishnan grins, shrugging. ‘Yes, but I can’t sleep without a bath, machan. Amma says I’ll be bald before I am twenty.’
Wijey nods stiffly. And tries to smile.
Krishnan stops wiping himself. He merely stands there, with one towel around his waist, another clutched limply in his hand, and Wijey doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know why his breath is rising, and he tries looking everywhere other than at Krishnan.
‘Well, let’s sleep. Before the rain stops.’ Wijey’s speech is discordant, and Krishnan squints at him for a split-second.
In a moment, Wijey regrets his suggestion – because no one sleeps in a towel. And as Krishnan picks up the pyjamas laid out neatly on the bed, Wijey wildly imagines that Krishnan is about to take his towel off in front of him, and panics inside. In the next moment, they both instinctively turn away from each other: one polite, the other private. But while Krishnan turns around to face a wall, Wijey has turned around to find the dresser-mirror right in front of him, and all of this is all wild and spontaneous and happens very fast, much faster to have been in any way premeditated . . . but when it happens, when Krishnan inexpertly crouches forward on one leg to pull on his pyjamas and his towel slips – slyly or inadvertently – to reveal him, Wijey doesn’t even think of looking away.
He is, admittedly, caught by surprise.
But, for the briefest second.
Suddenly everything becomes less straining. Because in that quickly passing moment of an unknowingly revealed Krishnan, Wijey realises that it was his beauty. This boy in his room with a slipping, white towel was beautiful, and that was the cause for all this panic inside him.
Upstairs, on the top of a long, old, dark-wooded cabinet, are frames of dusty photographs. Dark squares of history that don’t receive even the shortest glance from Wijey now, because he no longer remembers them to be there.
But in any house that has been lived in for a long time, there are things that mark, or claim, the entrances and exits of travellers. Bits of history bigger or smaller, but more invisible, than a framed photograph on a cabinet-top. Like the puddle of candle-wax hardened at the top of the staircase, where a twenty-something Wijey had sat entangled with someone he thought he loved, reading books during a long power-cut years and years ago. He had left with a lot of explanations to Wijey, most of which explained nothing, except the vague possibility that Wijey, despite his wealth, and his fervent way of loving someone, was somehow not enough. Then there was the dent on the kitchen wall, a deep gash of wounded plaster, that marked the spot where a dinner plate had crashed, when the young boy who was madly in love with Wijey refused to accept his sheepish explanation of what had happened with the stranger in Pettah. He had gone, too. And there was the sticker of a Mickey Mouse, now grey and slowly disintegrating, stuck to the bookcase in Wijey’s small office upstairs: a remnant from a trip abroad, with a friend who was gone now, who had used to call every now and again to make sure Wijey was still there. There were the empty bottles of wine and arrack containing all the conversations that were poured into them as the drinks were poured out. And there was that ashtray someone else had given him for a birthday. The cricket bat another one had forgotten to pack in his haste of walking out, which Wijey, in a histrionic moment of self-consoling, had had mounted on the wall beside the dining table.
Houses are full of these things, little redundant witnesses to truths that need no reminding. The truths of loneliness, and the endlessness of our final days.
The rain is now an easy drip out in the garden, keeping time with the tic-tic of the ceiling fan. The lights are out, there is darkness everywhere and Krishnan is snoring comfortably beside Wijey, his bedsheets tangled somewhere near his knees, a pillow shoved under one arm.
Wijey is wide-awake, his wide eyes stunned by the ceiling he couldn’t see.
Beside Krishnan, his arms folded across his chest, Wijey was shivering uncontrollably – not wholly for the coldness, but also for the new and frightening weakness of his body, as it yearned, now indubitably, for the touch of the person who was sleeping beside him. It overpowers Wijey, this arousal of his body, which had, until that night, always been under his control.
Krishnan stirs, and murmurs something in his sleep.
Wijey, mindlessly, crawls closer to Krishnan. Close enough that, without an inch between them, Krishnan’s breath warms Wijey’s shoulder.
And, if he closes his eyes, this minimising-maximising hotness on his shoulder would be the only thing linking him to the physical world. And the snoring, which was really just a low rumble; and the dripping rainwater outside. If he closes his eyes, he would fall asleep to these things. And, while he slept, there wouldn’t be anything to touch the certainty of those few facts.
Even thinking this forms a lump in his throat.
Wijey shifts his body a bit more, carefully, so as to not disturb Krishnan’s sleep, and allows his shoulder to touch, quietly press, Krishnan’s half-open lips.
It’s the quietest kiss Wijey will ever receive. Or steal.
In the darkness, with eyes at the ends of his fingers, Wijey finds Krishnan’s hand, lying in the narrow gap between their bodies, palm upward. Slowly, like touching a freshly opened wound, tentatively, Wijey lets his finger touch Krishnan’s palm: too gently that Krishnan will not know that his body was being discovered and (in a rudimentary way) loved. Too gently, also, that Wijey does not feel Krishnan’s skin beyond its stillness, its sleepingness. He lets them grow, the ovals of skin that were in contact.
Krishnan doesn’t stir.
Succubus, incubus, succubus, incubus.
The words seemed to float towards him from his books, and he, in an unnoticed distraction, wondered which name would more accurately apply to him.
He stays this way for a very long time: his hand in Krishnan’s palm, and Krishnan’s lips on his shoulder. Both of them breathing, one of them sleeping.
Soon, there will be the birds calling through the coming morning. And with it, a resignation. Failure, salvation. Either. Both.
Krishnan was supposed to wake up, find Wijey there holding his hand, and kiss him, and tell him that this was not the forbidden thing to be wanting, that it was only natural that Wijey found him beautiful, and fascinating in the way that beautiful people are found. They were supposed to come together, and there needn’t have been a question of what was to be done between them, what was to be found, what was to be taken home. What was to be remembered.
The biggest regret for Wijey was not that none of this came to pass, but that Krishnan would know nothing of what happened in their room that night. For Krishnan, when he woke up in a few minutes, an hour maybe, Wijey would still be just a friend: wealthy, quiet, good at algebra.
The journey from a downstairs window to his bedroom is now a long one for Wijey, a trip through memory, through old lives that cannot now be unlived.
Stories that will soon vanish into delirium.
But, for now, Wijey’s thoughts are slow, measured, trained. And in a night with a rare downpour, and dust-smells and old memories, he wonders a lot of things.
His large empty house of green walls could be, filled with grandchildren. A wife. She wouldn’t know him to the last detail, but would still love him, and hold his elbow while he clutched the unhelpful sarong . . . he may have lied to her from time to time: slipped into the shadows of the night and made love with a boy in a neighbour’s unsuspecting garden. But she would still be here.
Because, where, after all, does selflessness end, and selfishness begin? To a man who could have neither this, nor that, what does it all mean? He would have tried his best. Fairness, honour. To be certain and a refuge from her sadness. To be sufficient in every way he could help, and repentant for the ways in which he wasn’t.
But here is Krishnan, sleeping, innocently beside him all those years ago. And here is Wijey, denied of a newly found desire, and a resolution to find it again elsewhere.
There was no turning back for him.
Photograph by Derek Bridges