21 July, Veralugama, Sri Lanka

By Sunila Galappatti

This morning I feel the horizon drawing in again.  So let me start last Sunday.  We were in this very house by the forest packing the car to drive across the country in the morning, the longest distance we’d have gone since lockdown. 

Over the weekend a sudden outbreak of COVID cases linked to a single residential rehabilitiation centre, was leading to wild talk of a ‘second wave’ in Sri Lanka, the terminology itself casually inflated on an island that has largely escaped having any COVID ‘wave’ at all.   This is not to underestimate either the risks – especially as one person tested positive after transfer to a prison facility – or the hope that a local outbreak would remind us not to relax so much.  It seemed in places like people had really thought the crisis was over and were shocked to find it still with us.

We too exhibited delayed-reaction/head-in-the-sand type behaviour of the sort we should have outgrown once and for all, five months ago.  We focused on how not to cancel our trip.  Should we leave immediately, we wondered, and drive through the night before a new curfew might be called in the morning?  Even conscious of elephant crossings at night and the grave risks of falling asleep at the wheel, we did think about it, more than usually desperate to go, more fearful of renewed locking than I would have predicted.  We didn’t do it but we packed the car in a state of tension – it wasn’t just the risk of cancellation but the fact that what used to be an ordinary journey now felt momentous.  A suspected wild boar in the bushes nearby helped to heighten the moment.

Nothing happened overnight and in the morning we made our omelette sandwiches and set off as planned – the plan being not to stop at all on the 5-6 hour drive except once for the loo in a place we’d decided would be the least busy.  Indeed, when we pulled up to Habarana Rest House, it was closed.  But a woman playing with her daughter outside one of the rooms told me just to go in and use the toilet anyway.  Her daughter, the same size as our son, was so delighted to see another child she rushed up and threw her arms around him.  We their parents caught our breath, as one does now, though we would still never stop them.

Several hours and a mess of children later – this time my son and his three much beloved older cousins – I found the stillness to realise we had arrived as intended.  My husband was putting our son to bed and my brother was talking to his daughters as they got themselves ready to sleep.  Sitting in the living room outside, I heard my brother talk to his girls about the long history of Anti-Semitism, the Second World War, the abrupt loss of Palestinian homeland and the aggressions of modern Israel.  He did it exceptionally well of course, that didn’t surprise me.  As snatches of the conversation drifted out to me in the quiet of the sitting room, across from the quiet of the lagoon, I was preoccupied with something else.  I was struck just how normal the moment felt, after so long, and what a relief it was. 

About two months ago, in slightly eased lockdown we’d gone for a drive in the evening and the three year old, as if aware the drive was a sop and not the real thing, said to us ‘when the curfew and quarantine are over can we go to the cousins’ house?’ We have since told him that the quarantine isn’t really over though the curfew is – but we wanted to come good on what we’d promised him, who missed people most.  And here we were.

After two more lovely days with our family, we drove on to our best of beaches a little further north.  Kavan napped in the car and Kusal and I talked.  We’ve always had time to talk to each other, never more so than in lockdown, but again I was struck suddenly by a sense of space around our conversation – after months, the horizon was at the horizon. I cannot really describe to you my relief.  There is surely something about travelling distance.

One afternoon I saw a crab scuttling along the beach and nearly ran to get Kavan, only gently to remind myself this time it wasn’t a snatched outing, we would be staying here some days and there would be other crabs.  The abandon of missing a moment felt special in itself.  We spent three days in and out of sand and sea, we bought and steamed lobster because we could just about stretch to it at no-tourist prices, we explored the ruins of a grand old house next door and  when we left it was to the heart-breaking wails of a boy who wanted us just to ‘leave me at Trincomalee!’

We made two stops on the way back – once to buy buffalo curd at Kantale (obligatory, pandemic or not) and then again for the toilet at the place we’d stopped before.  This time it was the father of the family who let us use it. We realised the connection because we recognised him suddenly as a waiter at Habarana Rest House whom we’d chatted to in the pre-COVID life when we stopped here for tea on the long drives that were much more customary to us then.  He’d told us then he had child the same age as ours.

As I write this morning, Kusal and Kavan are out at work on a nearby coconut estate.  Kusal texts me a photo of our son scooping out the insides of a king coconut. Also by text, we agree we must find ways for him to return to an existence out of doors; at least some version of a life he used to live, in which he accompanied his father on all manner of errands and loved visiting the market and the bank.  Another text arrives – it is my father this time.  He says our polling cards have arrived.