A Sermon From Mount Mary
By Nalin Fernando.
Where have they all gone?
I am thinking about the Railway Burghers, not the flowers in the plaintive melody made popular during the Vietnam War.
Recently, I met one of them who did not uproot himself while almost everyone nearest and dearest to him had sought new pastures abroad to work or to retire.
He was the ultimate railway man, born in Mount Mary and he hoped to die in the vicinity in which he had lived all his life.
Once upon a time (he told me, over an arrack at the Twentieth Century Club where he was a guest) Eric de La Motte was bringing the 72 Up Night Mail from Badulla to Colombo.
He was piloting the old steam war-horse that had chugged along for well over thirty years, never failing if it had enough coal and water.
Melo, his ever-loving wife (home calling Melo, outside calling Maloney) was all a twitter as she was wont to be when he stays away overnight after taking the 463 Down Passenger two mornings before.
She had spruced up the railway quarters they lived in.
The floor was mopped, brushed and gleaming.
Although cobwebs stretched across the ceiling, one could comb your hair looking down at the floor as in a good Burgher home.
She dusted the paper flowers in a glass vase on an imitation ebony tea-boy.
She kept her quarters shining just as Eric liked his steam gauge glass and brass fittings in the loco cabin to sparkle.
The leftover ox tongue stew had been warmed up.
The raw onion and green chilli sambol and the bread cut in practical three-inch thick chunks were on the dining table that was draped with a blue and white checked plastic tablecloth.
The table stood on four tinned fish cans full of Jeyes fluid to keep the ants away.
Eric and Melo were well known in railway circles as a "lovely couple".
There was a grand do at the Railway Institute three years before when they celebrated their silver wedding anniversary.
Melo, now was shunting towards fifty, but she still maintained vestiges of her pleasant face and figure that had been the rage of the institute get-togethers in the days gone by.
Her bust, tummy and hips were about five inches rounder and her once delicate rear brake wagon was more prominent.
But, after two children, now grown up, what happened to Mrs. Hepponstall happens to all.
When they first met, Eric was a dashing young fireman who shoveled a stylish spade of coal.
He was tall, handsome and had a tattoo of a snake coiling round a totem pole on his left upper arm.
Melo often recalled those leathery palms of his in her soft hand and on her softer shoulder when he came up to her at a Christmas social and said, "dance".
They were married three weeks later and her mummy and daddy, also railway folk, approved of the match.
Old Meerwald was very proud of his s-I-l, especially his ability to drain two drams in one "gallop" and then nonchalantly crush the glass with his leathery bare hands.
Melo was giving the front steps a final swish and sweep when she spotted Dottie (outside calling Dorothy) doing the same chore in the adjoining quarters.
Dottie was Melo's good friend although socially inferior since her husband, Andrew, was still on the Puttalam run drawing cattle wagons and a few second and third class carriages.
"Erico coming soon", cried out Melo. "Bringing a leg of farm pork and bacon from Nanu and a bottle of Tiddenham Barrow from DLA. Making bacon and eggs. Pork for lunch".
"So, so, matinee show today", she replied mischievously.
Melo tried hard to blush at Dottie's naughty suggestion, failed miserably and only managed to coyly toss her short crop of hair.
"Don't be silly, Chile", she replied and walked in with a sly smile.
Eric arrived soon after in his favourite rickshaw.
It had been a satisfying run from Badulla.
The steam charge had been steady and he had not got any red signals approaching Fort that tested his patience after a long run.
He carried under his left arm-pit a parcel and on his right hand a bottle, both wrapped in old newspaper.
His overnight bag was slung on his left shoulder.
Moreover, if you think that the items wrapped in newspaper were leg of pork and a bottle of passion fruit, you were sadly mistaken.
The parcel was two pounds of fresh bread that Eric got from a florist cum undertaker after every run to Fort in appreciation of bringing back safely a basket of flowers from Blackpool.
The bottle had the last two shots of black arrack, the original contents having been progressively reduced at Bandarawela, Pattipola, Nanu Oya, Gampola and Polgahawela.
Eric walked in and placed his cargo on the dining table, took his shoes off and reclined on the armchair.
He turned to Melo and said "glass" in the same tone and timbre as he once said "dance" or says "coal" to his fireman when the steam gauge hits the warning line.
He paused until the glass was fetched and then said "food".
He was a man of few words.
Now, Melo had to fry bacon and eggs as previously boasted to Dottie.
If there was no bacon in the house, how was she to produce the sound and smell of frying bacon for which Dottie must surely be waiting with envy on the other side of the thin partition walls of the railway quarters?
Melo was a real one.
With a deft flick of her wet fingers she sprinkled water into a hot pan of old bacon fat.
Dottie, with her ears against the wall, heard the sizzling sound of water sprinkled on hot oil and aroma of bacon fat was in the air.
She resigned herself to the fact that her Andy could hardly be expected to bring back pork or bacon from Muslim dominated Puttalam.
Eric downed the remnants of the bottle in a single 'gallop".
He was ready for food after having had for dinner only a tasty but small parcel of rice and curry given to him by a certain tootsy-wootsy in Badulla - a middle-aged wife of a much older retired Sinhalese head guard with whom he had a discreet understanding.
When the plate of ox tongue stew had been wiped clean with the last chunk of bread, he released a subdued belch akin to a short blast of his steam hooter on seeing a jaywalker on the tracks ahead of him.
He rose from his chair unbuttoning his shirt, and loosening his belt and waistband he lounged in the armchair with his feet up on the extended foot-rests.
"Duckworth and Joppe coming for lunch. Buy some soda and beef. Duckworth bringing brinjal pickle. Rice and curry. Wake me when they come", he said in a rare long speech.
In three minutes he was fast asleep.
Melo spent half an hour de-stoning the rice, washing the dhal and peeling the potatoes to fry later.
She then stepped out dutifully towards Dematagoda with a shopping basket in her hand to buy some chicken necks for bites.
She could hear Dottie somewhere in the front of her quarters and was sure that she would be seen going out.
She put on a fleeting self-satisfied smile.
She tossed her short hair and smoothened it down on a side with her free hand.
She then wiggled her hips and hitched up her knickers.
How to disappoint that woman about the matinee, chile.