Observing through a haze of sorrow
I was holidaying alone in Sri Lanka in late 2012. Newly separated from my partner, I was gripped by sadness, regret and melancholia. To shake this off, I went to high tea at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo. My mood affected the way I observed life around me. The following story is probably the best short story I have ever penned.
I’d love to know their story. Maybe I will.
They’re sitting at the table next to mine. We are in the dining area at the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo, enjoying high tea. It seems so appropriate to be taking tea and cucumber sandwiches in this colonial heritage building on the shores of the Indian Ocean. This is an occasion to be seen. Women draped in saris of every hue predominate, but there’s also a scattering of men in suits, and still other women in fine expensive dresses among the crowd of a hundred. They’ve all taken hours to prepare for this afternoon event, ready to be seen, greet friends or acquaintances and blow air kisses.
I’m dressed casually, as is the couple at my neighbouring table. We’re not here to be seen, greet others or trade gossip. We are happy in our own company. I sneak furtive glances at them, trying to unravel their story.
I’d spotted them when I arrived ten minutes early for the high tea. They were seated near the entrance, watching the colony of staff set up the buffet banquet. I too sat and watched. Platters of finger sandwiches, cocktail sausages, mini pizzas, hot canapés of a dozen varieties, pitchers of pancake and waffle batter, jugs of juice, iced tea and coffee, trays of small cakes, scones and sherry glasses filled with four different types of mousse desserts were paraded from the kitchen to the dining area and all are ready, exactly at four o’clock. This precision has been fine-tuned over many decades. A staff of twenty stand in attendance, ready to seat guests, cook, help, clear plates, and constantly keep the assortment fully stocked.
At 4:00 p.m. the pair stand and move to enter. One walks with the assistance of a brass cane. She has a bad hip, but is not keen on a replacement yet. I follow. They are shown to the table they have reserved. I am offered my choice of the only two unreserved tables. Both are on either side of the intriguing pair. It is preordained. I am meant to unravel their story. I sit and glance their way. One looks at me and we exchange nods. I feel we have a shared secret.
They are in their sixties or seventies, Sri Lankan females, and I suspect, the very best of friends. One is petit and has bobbed dark wavy hair, streaked with grey. It is natural. She wears black slacks and a floral top of a jersey material. They have been her ‘little black dress’ for many years and will be for decades more, God willing. Her clothes are comfortable, not flashy. She hasn’t come to impress or be seen. She’s here for the buffet and the companionship of her friend. She’s not here to kiss cheeks. A smear of lipstick is her only concession to makeup. This lady learnt long ago that her natural beauty needs little enhancement. She likes jewelry and wears gold studs that look like tiny lotus flowers, a fine, simple gold chain around her neck and a few gold rings. Her wedding-ring finger is unadorned. I suspect the jewelry box at home is now empty. I smell a hint of expensive perfume. No doubt, she has placed a dab behind each ear and slashed it like a sharp knife, across her wrists.
Her friend is also short, but stocky, and sports a crew cut that is more grey than black. Her clothing is comfortable; a pair of shorts and a polo collared shirt. She looks ready for a game of soccer. None of her money has been squandered on makeup and her only feminine adornment is a pair of gold earrings that match those of her friend.
It is Ramadan, the Islamic fasting month, and we are all eating, so there are obviously no Muslims in the room. My friends are not adorned with gold crosses and definitely do not say grace before eating, so not Christians. Snippets of what I think is Sinhalese and English, drift from their table. I believe they are in the 75% of the population who claim Buddhism as their religion. I name these women, Petit and Soccer.
Soccer has a round face with smooth brown skin, but the circles around her eyes are a very dark plum colour. It could be an indicator of kidney problems in some races, but not here. Here it is the pigmentation change that comes with aging and the gaining of wisdom. I look and Soccer’s eyes meet mine. She gives a conspirital nod.
Petit has rested her walking stick against the wall beside their table. She wants both hands free to attack the buffet. Her hip pain is a price she is prepared to pay. No lunches were eaten today as they prepared for this indulgence, and they are ravenous. Petit and Soccer move to the food. They don’t meet and greet friends; they have none here, other than each other. The delicacies displayed are their focus. I follow.
They select identical food and drinks and return to their table armed with iced coffees and a plate each of chicken, tuna, egg, and pol sambol finger sandwiches. These are set on the table to wait, as they each return to select a plate of hot savory canapés. Again they choose identical foods. I ate lunch so my selection is modest in comparison. In companionable silence, Petit and Soccer set to work enjoying their treats, eating the cold food first while the hot food cools. In near record time, their plates are empty and removed by an attentive waiter.
They stop and talk. Perhaps they have eaten enough. Petit smiles as she talks, but Soccer looks sober, and then I see her offer a small smile. Obviously, she is the serious type who saves those smiles for special moments. Life has taught her to be careful with displays of emotions. They are a happy and contented pair. They’re ready for the second foray. Together they rise from their table and head to the buffet. Soccer, with no mobility issues, heads to the hot food displayed on the tables furthest away, while Petit attacks the closer cold foods. She is back first with two plates of sandwiches and returns for two more iced coffees. Soccer soon returns with plates of hot treats. They gaze at their selection in anticipation.
This time they eat more slowly. Tuna sandwiches are tasted first. The flavour is discussed as they decide what to try next. Their eating is synchronized. This harmony has evolved over many, many years. Their friendship goes back a long way.
I’m eating by myself. My partner is not with me. I feel a tinge of envy for what they have, but also deep respect. They have worked hard at forging and maintaining this long term friendship. It is obvious. Soccer looks my way again, sees me writing and gives a very slight nod. Perhaps I’ve imagined it.
I get up to select more treats. I am full but want to try the mango mousse and maybe a chocolate éclair. Soccer lazily watches me go. Does she feel sorry that I am eating alone? Perhaps she knows that I would rather be enjoying afternoon tea with my partner, instead of my notebook.
I return and the waiter arrives to refill my coffee cup. Is this my third or fourth? I must be crazy; it’s five o’clock and I can’t drink caffeine after noon. I’ll be up all night and have an early start tomorrow.
I’ve finished my desserts when my neighbours stand. Petit doesn’t grab her cane. They are not going home. They’re off to the sweets’ table. Where are they putting it all? Maybe they didn’t have breakfast this morning, and certainly won’t be eating dinner tonight. But I realize, neither will I.
Soccer grabs two plates and holds them out for Petit to fill up. She takes two of nearly everything and puts one on each plate. As Soccer returns to the table with her haul, Petit collects two more glasses of iced coffee. They mustn’t be caffeine insomniacs, or maybe they have better things to do tonight than sleep. I don’t.
I am sated and good manners tell me it is time to leave. I don’t listen. I want to keep observing. I feel happy in the aura of their company; these beautiful women who only have eyes for each other.
Their appetites astound me. It is not gluttony. They are here for a very special treat; they don’t usually do high tea, their budget doesn’t allow it. Perhaps they are celebrating a birthday or the thirtieth anniversary of their friendship; a friendship that will survive to the grave.
Our tables are finally cleared. We are finished. Petit reaches for her walking stick. They stand and so do I. Petit’s hand on her cane is covered tenderly by Soccer’s hand. She looks at me, smiles and nods. I mouth, “Thank you,” and we head off in opposite directions. They have brightened my day and expanded my faith in the longevity of true friendship.
Oh, how I love knowing their story.