‘One more of these, Malli!’ he calls to the waiter, tapping a plump forefinger against the empty tumbler in front of him.
‘Sure, if you’ll be paying today’, the waiter says from a table nearby without looking up. He starts to load his tray with dirty tumblers and stainless-steel plates.
‘Malli…’ Mekala smiles, showing a set of yellowing teeth. ‘I have a deal coming through tomorrow. I’ll be buying drinks for everyone on Friday’, he says, looking over at the only other people present – a group of men across the room, leaning over their drinks, chatting with each other. They carry on, oblivious to Mekala, his impending deal and his promise.
The waiter carries the tray away, then returns, flicking a cloth out of his belt to wipe the table down.
Mekala stares at his own hands. His fingernails are dirty and uneven. The skin around them is wrinkled and raw from being constantly thrust between his teeth. A bad habit, of which his mother always disapproved.
The waiter tucks the cloth back into his belt and goes to the back. He returns with a chit which he places in front of Mekala as he walks over to clear another table.
‘Shit’, Mekala smiles, reaching for his trouser pocket. Finding only two crumpled orange notes in there, he grabs his laptop bag and slips out. The waiter shakes his head, muttering as he wipes.
The night is young, Mekala says to himself.
Pulling out a banged-up Nokia from his laptop bag, Mekala punches in the number he always wants to punch in at this time of the day. He treads the uneven pavement towards the bus stand with the skill of a tired circus elephant.
She picks up at last
‘Babe?’ he says. ‘Babe.’
‘Stop calling me, psycho.’
‘Babe, I can pay you back tomorrow.’ The words tumble out.
‘Oh ya?’ she snarls. ‘Like how you paid me back last month?’
‘No, no’, he says. ‘I have a deal coming through. I’m going to be a rich man!’
‘Rich enough to leave me alone?’ she asks.
‘I’ll never leave you alone, babe’, he says. ‘Babe?’
She has hung up as she sometimes does.
Mekala punches in the next number.
‘How machang? Want to meet for a drink?’
‘Machang? Are you there?’
‘Yes, hi Mekala. Machang, in the middle of something. I’ll call you back.’ Click.
By this time, Mekala has reached the bus stand. Slipping his phone into his shirt pocket, he gazes at the backdrop of the bus stand: lit up from the inside, it displays the near-perfect face of Shyamal Weerakkody, Entrepreneur of the Year. As Mekala gazes at this image every night, he doesn’t even try to stop himself from reimagining it, replacing Shyamal’s brilliant smile, his fine nose and perfectly manicured beard with his own smile, his round face, his cratered, puffy cheeks. ‘Mekala Perera: Entrepreneur of the Year – Does It Again!’ Mekala smiles.
The 100 approaches in a cloud of smoke, and Mekala climbs in.
Galle Road is throbbing with life, even at this hour. As the 100 passes the neon sign of the Hotel Carolina, Mekala’s mind goes back to the one night he spent there, not so long ago.
It took Mekala seven gruelling months to convince Mr. Jansen to proceed with the transaction, but when he finally came on board, he refused Mekala’s demand for a reasonable commission.
‘You added nothing to my decision’, Mr Jansen said. ‘You made the process much longer than it should have been. I’m not paying you a cent!’
After several weeks and about a dozen calls a day to Mr Jansen, he finally received a call back from Mr Jansen’s secretary.
‘Mr Perera, your payment is ready for collection’, she said.
‘I’ll be there right away, Piyumi’, he said, but in fact he had plenty of things to do before going.
Mekala stepped into Jansen & Co just as its employees had begun filing out at the end of their workday. Mekala passed the receptionist without meeting his eye and found himself in front of a row of mounted photographs, which hung above the staircase. They were portraits of Mr. Jansen, his brothers and their grand old father. He fixed his gaze on the old man, the deep folds of skin around his smile. Now that’s what you call a wealthy and successful smile, he thought to himself.
As the lobby emptied out almost completely, Mekala thought he should probably go upstairs and collect his money. He stepped inside the lift and pressed the button for Piyumi’s floor. ‘You look presentable’, he said to his reflection in the mirror, choosing to overlook the giant patches of sweat under his arms. As the bell went off and the doors opened up at the third floor, Mekala found Piyumi standing outside them, dressed like the secretary of his dreams. He was tempted to ask if she had an after-work photoshoot that day, but there was something about the way she raised one eyebrow and sucked in her upper lip at the sight of him that made him hesitate. He offered her a soothing grin instead.
Without so much as a word of greeting, Piyumi turned on her heels and headed back to her cubicle. Mekala followed behind her, like a clumsy, oversized puppy on its way to the kitchen. She handed him a sealed envelope which he took, his hand brushing hers briefly. He thought he saw her roll her eyes a little, but he must have got that wrong. Piyumi was a nice girl. Mekala headed back to the lift, trying hard to match the brisk click-click of Piyumi’s high heels with the cloddish thump-thump of his own rubber soles. Reaching the lift, he watched as she pressed a slender finger on the downward arrow. It lit up at her touch.
Mekala wanted to say something clever, but Piyumi dashed down the fire escape before he could. The lift arrived soon after and opened its empty arms to Mekala, who stepped in heavily. Maybe next time, Mekala thought to himself. Next time, for sure.
Commission in hand, Mekala headed to the Ariyapala Wine Store, where he bought himself a good celebratory Mendis. The next thing he remembers was lying in a single bed, the Carolina neon sign shining from outside the window and the rank smell of unwashed hair from someone bending over him.
The following morning, Mekala reached for his trousers, which lay crumpled on the floor. He searched their pockets, turning them inside out, but there was no sign of the envelope. All he found was the Preethi he picked up from the pharmacy the night before, still in its silver wrapping. He felt his heart pump right into his ears.
The waiter at his nightly stop heard the story that night and still does at least a couple of times a week. The story of this wild night of cash, booze and women. It’s the kind of story not every man is lucky enough to tell.
Reaching home, Mekala pushes open the rusty iron gate. It moves on its ungreased hinges with the sound of an old man’s wheeze. He crosses the brief lawn to step onto a red oxide veranda, which runs across the front of the house. It is dark and still inside. She has turned in, as she always does, before he gets home.
Mekala rummages through his laptop bag in search of his keys, only to find three loose cigarettes, a ballpoint pen, his phone charger and a bottle opener he cannot recall seeing before in his life. He groans at the thought of waking her up.
‘Amma! It’s me. You’ve locked me out again.’
‘Nuisance…’ she says, groping for the light switch in the hall. ‘Why can’t you carry your keys with you?’
‘Stop locking your children out of their house!’
‘My children? My children live in their own houses, paying their own rent.’
A single bulb hanging from the ceiling above him comes on.
‘Who am I, then?’
There is a click, and her small angry face appears from behind the front door.
‘You’re an irresponsible fool.’
He pushes past her into the living room, collapsing onto the couch while reaching for the TV remote.
‘You’d better watch that thing on mute!’ she squawks, her throat dry from sleep. ‘Some of us have jobs to do in the morning.’
The TV lights up, and Mekala flicks past the news channels in search of a late-night movie or a reality show. Amma shuts the front door, sliding the bottom bolt down loudly into its hole in the floor, then flies into her bedroom, banging her door so hard behind her that the front windows rattle in their frames. For such a tiny woman who only chirps in the presence of outsiders, Amma can be surprisingly scary when provoked or woken up from her sleep.
Mekala settles down to a show, but his mind is all over the place.
Amma took over the family business after Thaththa died. But she does business like a studious child prepares for an exam. Mahesh, Mekala’s younger brother, helps Amma out over the weekends, but he’s almost worse than Amma. Neither Amma nor Mahesh ever take a drink. Something about discipline and not wanting to be like Thaththa. Whatever that means, Mekala thinks. He shifts his weight on the couch, then goes back to thinking about the sorry state of Amma and Mahesh. Neither of them have any form of a social life, he thinks. Amma spends her evenings doing pointless things. When she gets home from work, she reads the Daily FT while sipping her tea, then she carefully pleats and starches a saree to wear to work the next day. She makes it a point to retreat into her bedroom after the eight o’clock news, to study the Principles of Accounting in bed until she falls asleep. Mekala shakes his head at the absurdity of it all. Although she glides into the kitchen in her housecoat every morning at the crack of dawn to prepare a pot of rice, a meat curry and two vegetables for them both to take with them for lunch, Mekala wishes she didn’t bother. He is not sure Amma ever actually sits down to eat what she prepares because, if she did, she would know it was time to hire a cook. Mahesh, who lives a few doors down from Amma’s house, wastes his time regularly at the gym, even though he is married to a woman with no breasts and very narrow hips. Despite her looks, his wife has somehow managed to convince him that he does not need to have a backup plan. She’s diabolical, that one, Mekala thinks, recalling her obvious looks of disapproval whenever he drops in at theirs, after a long day, for a bit of dinner.
Who wants the life that Amma and Mahesh live? It’s boring. They’re boring. Neither of them will ever have their faces lit up in bus stands. They’ll never have the dazzling smile that successful men like Shyamal Weerakkody or even old Mr Jansen have. Thaththa could maybe have hoped for that, but he died before he made it big. He passed the mantle on to Mekala. Amma and Mahesh don’t understand this, but it is a fact.
‘You got to follow your heart, Putha. Big achievements take time’, Mekala recalls Thaththa saying to him when he returned home from school one afternoon. Thaththa staggered towards the kitchen sink in search of a tumbler. ‘A man knows when he is born for greatness’, he said, nearly dropping his sarong in the process.
Mekala took the bottle from Thaththa, reached for a tumbler from the pantry table and poured out a generous drink.
‘You’re a good son, Mekala. You listen to your Thaththa’, his father chuckled, taking the tumbler from him. ‘You pour your Thaththa a Mendis when he is tired!’ He chuckled deeper.
Pat-pat, went Thaththa’s hand on Mekala’s head.
‘You see. I am a free man. I don’t work for other people. I started my own business as soon as you were born. I employed my own wife’, Thaththa went on. ‘Your mother is not smart like me, but she manages.’
‘Don’t you ever be a yes-man, Putha. You make your own rules.’ Thaththa then set his bottom down on the couch and let out a long and fragrant burp.
Mekala sat down next to Thaththa, who smelled of stale Black Knight and fermented fruits.
‘What’s this?’ Thaththa asked, noticing a hand-shaped purple bruise peep from under Mekala’s school shorts.
‘Were you playing tap rugby?’ Thaththa asked, knowing Mekala never played with other boys the way Mahesh did.
Mekala smiled wider, trying to cover the bruise with a plump hand, but realising, a little too late, that the purple fingers were longer than his own.
‘Buggers are after you in school, aren’t they?’ Thaththa growled. ‘Bastards are touching my son!’
He took a sip of Mendis, his throat hot with anger.
‘Where do they take you to do this, Mekala?’ Thaththa slurred. ‘You tell me so I can find them when they are at it’, he continued, giddy. ‘I’ll skin them with my belt.’
Mekala kept smiling with his lips, but his eyes were windows into an empty room. If Thaththa would only look, he’d see that a hollowness had filled his son; a void that had come to stay. But Thaththa did not look. In fact, by that night, Thaththa would forget this conversation even happened.
Mekala fingers the plastic cap of the pen-drive in his hand. He is seated outside the boardroom, waiting to be called in to make his presentation (and rake in the cash).
The reception area outside the boardroom is as cold as an icebox. Mekala glances down at his shoes and catches a hazy glimpse of his reflection in the green marble floor. You look like a million bucks, he assures himself, then smiles at the uncanny timeliness of those words. The air smells so much like some kind of fresh, irresistible citrus fruit that Mekala has to stop himself from sticking his tongue out to figure out which fruit it is. Mr. Fernando, who is seated next to him, breaks into his reverie.
‘Make the presentation, then leave’, he instructs. His breath is all onions, from the seeni sambol bun he ate on the way. ‘I will close the deal.’
Mekala’s nostrils flair.
‘I can close it…’ he begins.
‘I don’t care what you can do – I am doing this. This is my client. You aren’t entitled to a brokerage fee.’
‘What?’ Mekala says, turning to face Mr. Fernando. ‘We agreed to split the fee…’
‘We agreed to nothing. I hired you for a fixed payment. That is all you can expect from me.’
Mekala opens his mouth to protest, but before the words can be formed, the frosted glass door of the boardroom gasps open, letting out a young lady in a skin-tight knee length skirt.
‘Please’, she says, gesturing for them to enter.
The boardroom is rectangular, with enormous windows overlooking a dazzling Indian Ocean. At its centre is a large table made entirely from steel and glass. Stepping inside the room feels like stepping into a giant fish tank in the sky.
At the head of the table, seated in a plush, moss-green, leather chair is the client. He stands to greet Mr. Fernando, letting his chair roll back gracefully behind him, in one fluid movement. His large eyes, magnified behind black-framed spectacles, are fixed on Mr. Fernando. Turning briefly to Mekala, he extends a cold, firm, hand to him too.
He is why this whole place smells like grapefruit, Mekala quietly notes, satisfied at having identified the fruit without the use of his tongue.
Taking his seat again, the client places an elbow on the armrest of his seat and two perfect fingers under his ample double chin as if to steady it. Then his enormous dark pouty lips curve into a magnificent smile. This is the smile of wealth and success, Mekala thinks, again. The same one that Shyamal Weerakkody has that lights up the bus stand. Mekala returns to the client his own version of a wealthy and successful smile.
After what feels like hours of pointless conversation about rush-hour traffic, the merits of the latest government budget proposal and the state of the Port City project, the client finally says to Mr. Fernando, ‘Let’s have a look at the specifications.’
‘Mekala’, Mr. Fernando says, turning to him. ‘Go ahead.’
Mekala rises from his seat. He sticks the pen-drive into the USB port of his laptop and waits for the prompts to appear. They don’t. He looks up at Mr. Fernando and the young lady in the mesmerising skirt who is seated across from him. Then he flashes a smile at the client. ‘It takes a few minutes to load’, he says, pointing to his laptop.
‘Until it loads…’ Mekala says to the client, glancing at Mr. Fernando’s darkening face, ‘let me tell you why this would be an ideal fit for a man of your stature in the business community.’
Mekala spends the next few minutes making his pitch. Ideas pour out of him seamlessly. It pays to watch a lot of reality TV, he thinks to himself, remembering last night’s episode of Shark Tank. Mr. Fernando has no idea of the creative genius Mekala is as a salesman. This is going to be how I win them both over, Mekala thinks as he continues.
By the time the first slide appears on the screen, Mekala feels confident that the client has comfortably swallowed the hook. There’s really no need for a presentation, he thinks. Moving the laptop towards the client, Mekala feels it is only necessary to make a few closing statements. ‘Glance through these slides yourself, sir, and you’ll see what I mean’, he finishes, with visible satisfaction.
Mekala can sense the young lady’s growing admiration for him as he takes his seat. Why else would she be trying so hard not to break into a smile?
‘Mr. Fernando’, the client says, sliding the laptop back. ‘This…is not quite what I expected.’
‘Sir, allow me to take you through the presentation’, Mr. Fernando tries. ‘My colleague doesn’t know the subject like I do—’
The client raises his hand to stop the words from coming out of Mr. Fernando’s mouth. ‘That won’t be necessary’, he says. Mekala smiles, confident that the client will pull out his cheque book and close the meeting on a happy note.
Instead, the client says, ‘Sasha will show you out’, and stands up. ‘Thank you for coming’, he says.
Mr. Fernando looks physically unwell. Mekala keeps his smile up, but the client’s shocking behaviour has got the better of his sweat glands.
‘Good day’, the client says before turning to leave the boardroom.
At his nightly stop, the waiter refuses to let Mekala sit down without assurance that he will pay for his drink.
‘The manager has given me strict instructions not to serve you any more free drinks.’
Mekala sets his laptop bag down on the table. It seems heavier today than it usually does. He pulls out his purse, opening it up to show the waiter its contents. Other than a faded NIC, some old receipts and a few coins, it is empty.
The waiter hesitates, then says, ‘This is your last one.’ He takes a lime-soda off his tray and places it in front of Mekala, then walks on.
At the bus stand, Mekala gazes at the brightly lit face of Shyamal Weerakkody, Entrepreneur of the Year. He gazes long and hard as he always does, but tonight, he doesn’t reimagine the picture.
How did Shyamal make it? Did he ever find himself at the back of the science lab with his underpants around his ankles? Did his father drink himself to sleep every afternoon? Did he too ride the 100 endlessly, in and out of disappointing liaisons, before hitting the jackpot? How did Shyamal Weerakkody get his face lit up? How did he master that winning smile?
While emerging from this meditation, Mekala notices that a young woman has sat down at the bus stand with her back to Shyamal Weerakkody. She is slim and wears a blue and brown saree with neat, broad pleats pulled over her left shoulder, showing no skin at the midriff. She holds a thinly sharpened pencil in her right hand, and on her lap is a large and heavily fingered softcover copy of the Principles of Accounting. Her quiet seriousness seems curiously familiar, strangely comforting.
She leans against Shyamal’s jaw and opens her book up, almost exactly in the middle. Shyamal fades into oblivion as Mekala watches the young woman stare intently at the page in front of her, like a kingfisher about to dive in for a catch.
Mekala stands completely still. He cannot even muster a smile. He is afraid that if he so much as breathes or makes a sound, however small, this creature, blown in from another world, would take flight, and he would never see her or her starched and ironed blue-brown saree ever again.
Just then, the 100 rattles up in a flurry of smoke and comes to a stop in front of them both. The young woman shuts her book with the pencil still inside it and slides it into her large brown handbag, next to a folded copy of the Daily Mirror. As she stands up, her pencil case slips off her lap without her noticing. She flutters towards the bus and climbs in, lifting her saree to reveal two tiny ankles.
Mekala picks up the pencil case as if it is made from feathers and climbs in after her.
The bus is only half-full. Mekala makes his way up to the young woman – his shoes as heavy as stones – and hands her the pencil case, forgetting to smile.
She looks up at him. ‘Gosh, thank you!’ she says, her fingertips soft against his open palm.
She gathers her bag into her lap, to make room for him.
He sits down next to her; their eyes meet briefly.
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