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Authors: Heather Burt

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Adam's Peak

BOOK: Adam's Peak
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ADAM'S PEAK

ADAM'S PEAK

A Novel

Heather Burt

Copyright ©Heather Burt, 2006

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise (except for brief passages for purposes of review) without the prior permission of Dundurn Press. Permission to photocopy should be requested from Access Copyright.

Editor: Barry Jowett
Copy-editor: Andrea Waters
Design: Alison Carr
Printer: Webcom

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Burt, Heather, 1965-

         Adam's peak / Heather Burt.

ISBN-13: 978-1-55002-646-7
ISBN-10: 1-55002-646-1

           I. Title.

PS8603.U785A64 2007             C813'.6            C2006-905755-9

1     2      3      4     5       10    09    08     07    06

We acknowledge the support of the
Canada Council for the Arts
and the
Ontario Arts Council
for our publishing program. We also acknowledge the financial support of the
Government of Canada
through the
Book Publishing Industry Development Program
and
The Association for the Export of Canadian Books
, and the
Government of Ontario
through the
Ontario Book Publishers Tax Credit program
and the
Ontario Media Development Corporation.

Care has been taken to trace the ownership of copyright material used in this book. The author and the publisher welcome any information enabling them to rectify any references or credits in subsequent editions.

J. Kirk Howard, President

Printed and bound in Canada
Printed on recycled paper

www.dundurn.com

Dundurn Press
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Dundurn Press
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U.S.A. 14150

For Paul

DECEMBER 1970

T
he whole family, it seems, is out of sorts. Mum now cries at the slightest thing—the mention of a holiday for which she'll be absent, the sight of tea pluckers in the hills—or sometimes for no reason at all. Aunty Mary follows Mum's cues, bursting out in supportive tears promptly and heartily. Susie creeps about, staying out of everyone's way, doing as she's told. Even Grandpa, proud host of the tea plantation, seems small and uncertain. Dad is behaving strangest of all—one minute playful and boisterous, rounding up the troops for a game of cricket; the next, wandering silently into the hills, not answering when Mum calls. At the moment, he and all the other grown-ups are out on the lawn, gloomily drinking their afternoon tea. From the cool shelter of Grandpa's verandah, Rudy watches them.

It's the usual group sitting around the low cane table, and yet nothing at all
seems
usual. Over the course of the weekend, the once ordinary events of a visit to Grandpa's tea plantation have been given special titles, each of them beginning with “The Last”: The Last Tour of the Factory, The Last Milk Rice Breakfast, The Last Trip to the
Nuwara Eliya Market. And now, a cloud of stifling sadness hangs over The Last Afternoon Tea on the Lawn. Next week, there will be a last Christmas at Aunty Mary and Uncle Eugene's house, and by New Year's Day the Van Twest family will be carving a new life from the ice and snow of Canada (though Dad will be taking his tea expertise to an important job with the Red Rose Company). For a long time it seemed to Rudy that this new life was all anyone could talk about. But in these final days, the bubbling anticipation has gone flat and the word
Canada
has taken on a new, taboo meaning, like Uncle Eugene's illness. Something that shouldn't be talked about.

In contrast to the gloomy gathering on the lawn, the day is bright and airy, a welcome change from Colombo's heat. Mum is wearing her fancy turquoise sari, one last time, its gold embroidery gleaming in the afternoon sun. When she came outside for afternoon tea, Dad said she looked like she was off to a bloody Kandyan wedding, but Rudy noticed that he smiled proudly when he said it.

Scratching a new mosquito bite, Rudy turns his attention to an army of small red ants transporting the corpse of a cockroach across the polished cement floor. For a time, the collective strength and cooperation of the insects fascinates him, but as they disappear into a crevice, he heaves a sigh of boredom and squints out at his cousins, all older and all girls, talking endlessly in a far corner of the lawn. For the first time ever, he finds himself wishing for a brother his own age to play with, or even a younger one he could boss around. His mother has told him there'll be plenty of children on their street in Montreal, which makes him wish he were there already.

For a change of scenery, he goes into the bungalow. It's quiet and dark inside, and it takes a while for his eyes to adjust. Dragging his fingers along the wall, he goes to the sitting room in search of Susie, last seen giving the elephant figurines a ride on the turntable of the old gramophone. He's disappointed not to find her, as he hoped she would take him to look at the crocodile lamp in Grandpa's study. But on further consideration, he decides that a six-year-old who'll soon be going to school in Canada shouldn't need his sister's protection to look at a dead crocodile. He continues down the hallway, his bare feet making sticking sounds on the wooden floor, and pushes the study
door open. The room is dusty and old-fashioned, but bright, its white walls ribbed with slats of sunlight from the louvred shutters. As his eyes readjust, Rudy scans his grandfather's things—the tall shelves crammed with leather-bound books, the framed certificates and photographs, the brass ashtray stand, and the mounds of documents on the massive desk. Finally, he zeroes in on the lamp.

The crocodile lamp is Grandpa's prize possession. It stands next to the fireplace, seemingly balanced on the curve of its tail, though a pair of metal supports drilled into the hind legs provides the real stability. When the lamp is on, the animal's ivory belly reflects the soft glow of the electric light bulb that has somehow been rigged to its head under a small khaki shade. Stunted forearms and chipped claws are frozen in a perpetual snatch, while the mouth is fixed in a toothy grimace. The eyes are glass and disappointingly artificial; still, the overall impression is one of terrific fierceness.

Facing the creature now, though, Rudy feels his family's cloud of sadness descend on him. It is The Last Meeting with the Crocodile. He isn't even particularly afraid, which only heightens the sadness. He touches the creature's shoulder and watches it teeter back and forth from one support to the other, more lamp than crocodile. He steps back, tries to be afraid. But it's useless. Somehow the fierce beast has been tamed.

He's about to leave the study when he notices, above the lamp, a framed black and white photograph. In it, two young men are standing against a low stone wall on either side of a bell, which hangs like a third head above them. Behind them, in the distance, are rolling hills. One of the men—too dark to be a Burgher—looks as stiff and lifeless as the crocodile lamp. He's dressed in black trousers and a long-sleeved white shirt. The other fellow, in light trousers and a polo shirt, is leaning away from the serious boy, not even looking at the camera. His eyes are fixed on something, or someone, off to the side, and he's laughing.

Absorbed in the two figures, wishing again that he had a brother to play with, Rudy doesn't immediately notice his grandfather in the doorway of the study, and he jumps when Grandpa asks him what he's doing. He glances at the crocodile then back up at the photograph.

“Who are those two people, Grandpa?”

His grandfather comes to stand beside him. Old-man smells of tobacco and shoe polish fill Rudy's nostrils. Grandpa points his pipestem at the serious-looking fellow.

BOOK: Adam's Peak
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