eLanka | NIGHT OF TERROR DAWN OF HOPE. – By Bernard VanCuylenburg

PROLOGUE

Please note that the names of the Superintendent and the Assistant Superintendent in this story are pseudonymns used for reasons of journalistic propriety. The officer in Charge of the Maskeliya Police Station at the time Mr.Ivan Boteju, a star athlete and an old boy of St.Anthony’s College Kandy, passed away about fifteen years ago. The name of the plantation too has been substituted by a pseudonym.

The shades of night began to fall when the sun said ‘goodbye’ to the mountains. Then the mists began rolling in, embracing the landscape of green tea in its mantle, and another busy day on this large tea plantation was ensconced in the bosom of the nights stygian darkness. In his large estate bungalow a young Assistant Superintendent Tony Richards then a bachelor, settled down to his usual routine. Pouring himself a stiff tot of the amber liquid that cheers, he indulged in his passion  –  listening to his collection of jazz records. As he played one record after another, one drink followed the other and this pleasure often led him to go to bed in the wee small hours.

The fact that he had to be up early in the mornings did not bother him. His “laissez – faire” attitude to life and the fact that he always had a calm demeanour were his special traits and knowing him from my schooldays it is no exaggeration when I say that not once have I seen him lose his calm and “sang froid” in my eleven years as a boarder at St.Anthony’s College, Kandy.

 He was one of three Assistant Superintendents on this large plantation in the Maskeliya district, and his Superintendent Mr.Peter Dunsmore was a planter of the old school, prim proper and correct,and very demanding at the best of times as far as the work ethic was concerned. He kept a very sharp eye on his Assistants, although he was by no means tyrannical and was a reasonable man. And this is where the geography of the estate plays a big part in this story.

The Superintendent’s bungalow was located atop a slight hill, and our Assistant’s bungalow was located close by at a lower elevation. From his bungalow, the Superintendent could not but fail to observe that his young Assistant kept very late nights and this was not the exception but the rule!  From his perch on the hill the Superintendent noted with alarm that his young Assistant seemed to live it up at nights with the bungalow lights on, till the wee small hours. He thought a few words of advise to his Assistant would be in order.

There is a song with the title “The night has a thousand eyes”. The young Assistant SD was blissfully unaware that while the smooth sounds of the jazz music he loved fired his passions and soul at night ably aided by more than a glass or two of some good liquor  –  and he could really knock them down  –   two pairs of eagar eyes were observing his nocturnal activities with some interest and concern.

The next morning on his field rounds the Mr.Dunsmore caught up with Tony Richards in the pruning field and after a cursory glance at the work in progress, took him aside and proceeded to advise him about the advantages of going to bed early (weekends excluded !) so that he would be fully fit to carry out his duties the following day. He further emphasized that he had been observing these “late nights” from his bungalow with some alarm. It must be stated in fairness that he did not speak to him as a PD to his SD in strict official terms. On the contrary as I was informed, it was like a father speaking to a wayward son. Mr.Dunsmore a veteran planter from the old school who had experienced life with its peaks and troughs was also experienced in the art of diplomacy, and he tempered his “pep talk” with all the skills he could muster. Tony Richards characteristic of his genial nature, listened to his PD with respect and did not once remonstrate against what was in normal terms, an intrusion into his privacy.  But that was on the outside. On his way home for lunch the words of his PD rang in his ears and then something inside him snapped. He was a very good worker and wondered how his private life was Company business specially if it did not offend anybody  –  least of all his employer.

That evening he summoned his Appu Sellamuttu, and gave him the following instructions. After dinner he gave orders that henceforth at night no lights in the bungalow should be kept on unnecessarily after dinner. Only one dim light was to be left on in the living room. (which set the mood as he revelled in the sounds of jazz). The curtains were to be tightly drawn so that no light was visible from the exterior of the bungalow. And with only one dim light on, any inquisitive onlooker from outside   –  such as his PD  – would not even detect a faint gleam of light.. ! He further instructed Sellamuttu that he was to retire for the night no sooner he had finished his dinner and completed the kitchen work.

 From that night on, anybody driving up to visit our young Assistant without an appointment would have thought that he had retired for the night as the bungalow from the exterior was enveloped in darkness. With only one dim light on and the curtains tightly drawn setting the scene for a night of romantic jazz , this strategy was very effective as his PD did not broach the topic further. Being a very popular member of the Planters Club and a bachelor to boot, he visited the Club as often as was practical. As protocol demanded, he always informed his PD when he was away from the estate. How the PD did not advise him of his outings in the evening which resulted in late nights beggars belief !

 One night he returned later than usual from his club having imbibed much of the cup that cheers, in high spirits (Pardon the bad pun).  No sooner he turned off to the road leading to his bungalow his sense of euphoria vanished when he observed that the entire bungalow was lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree ! Parking his motor bike in the garage he stormed into the bungalow and called for Sellamuttu the Appu  – to be precise he used the call bell in the lounge room for this purpose. Having waited awhile surmising that the Appu would long have retired for the night, he tried again but there was no response. He then searched the entire bungalow from room to room looking for Sellamuttu to no avail. What set the alarm bells ringing was when he decided to look for him in his quarters to wake him in order to find out why the bungalow lights were on contrary to his orders. And this was when he sobered up very quickly, because the Appu was not in his room. Stunned to find the Appu missing he searched the bungalow again for the second time, until he suddenly remembered the shed in the garden.

 There was a shed in the garden with a small toilet which was used by the gardener on duty for his tea or lunch break. He gingerly made his way in biting cold armed with a torch as this shed was some way off from the main bungalow. Finding the door opened he entered. To his relief he found Sellamuttu asleep on the camp bed inside. Going up to him he addressed him by name but there was no response. When there was no answer for the second or third time, he gently shook him by the shoulder. To his surprise he discovered that the sleeping figure was totally unresponsive. By now very wide awake he sat on the bed and shook him more firmly by the shoulder again and then to his horror discovered that he was shaking a corpse because Sellamuttu was dead !

 

It was now past 1.00 am. and it was his duty to first notify the police that he had a corpse on his hands and then go through the laborious process of explaining to them how he stumbled upon the corpse, not to mention arranging for a post mortem with the medical authorities. Worse he had the unpleasant task of having to inform Mr.Dunsmore his PD.

 And this is where if anybody deserved a medal for acting calmly in a very touchy tense situation full of duress, our Assistant won it hands down beyond the shadow of a doubt. Despite the alchoholic haze his thought process and reasoning were exemplary ! One hears the title of somebody being referred to as “Mr.Cool” specially in cinema box office winners when the hero does something extraordinary despite all odds. But this was no cinema. It was life in the raw in circumstances which would have broken the strongest spirit and driven the stoutest heart to despair. What followed next was life imitating art, as it was straight out of the best crime novel.

The Assistant did some lateral thinking surmising that if he summoned the police around 1.30 am in the morning they would ask him a myriad questioning regarding his movements that evening since only the Appu and he were the sole occupants of the bungalow. Worse, he was after liquor and once they smelled this substance on his breath, they could well have accused him of murder !! This was not beyond the realms of possibility. An Assistant Superintendent after liquor, alone with a corpse in the tool shed  –  what other conclusion could they draw ?

 He decided that because he had to be up early that morning as the Visiting Agent was due to visit the estate of all days, he would leave the corpse as he found it, retire for the night and summon the police in the morning around 5.30 am. when he usually had his morning tea,or “bed tea” as it was commonly known. He decided he would inform his PD after attending to the formalities. Finishing his morning “cuppa” he rang the Maskeliya Police Station and asked to speak to the Officer in Charge. After this night of terror, little de he realize that the telephone call he would make to the Officer in Charge of the Maskeliya Police Station would be his ray of sunshine signalling a dawn of hope.

One often hears the phrase “from the sublime to the ridiculous”. What followed is what I call “from the terrifying to the amusing !!”. I will best express it by repeating as well as I can remember, the telephone conversation between the Assistant SD and the Inspector of Police.

 

Assistant SD : Good morning I am Tony Richards the Assistant SD on Lilly Vale.Group, Maskeliya. I

                        need to speak to the Officer in Charge on a matter of urgency. There is a corpse in my

                       my bungalow !

 

The Policeman who took the call summoned the Officer in Charge who came to the phone immediately.

 Officer in Charge:  Good morning, OIC speaking.

Assistant SD:         Good morning  – my name is Tony Richards……….there is a corpse in my

                                bungalow. Could you please come over without delay?

 

Officer in Charge :  I say, are you an Anthonian ?(!!!)

 Assistant SD (amused at the question) Yes I am !.

Officer in Charge  ” My God I remember you in College. I never knew you were planting in this .                                district. I am Ivan Boteju. I will come over immediately.

               .

Assistant SD :       (Amused and relieved) Thank you Ivan. Please come straight to my

                               bungalow,

                                            

For a brief moment in this very serious situation there was an “Old Anthonians” meeting between two old Anthonians one a Planter and the other a police officer with characteristic Anthionian camaraderie. OIC Ivan Boteju took full control of the situation and after a few brief questions to ascertain how the body was discovered undertook to notify the Medical Officer straightaway to arrange a post mortem. This was done, and around 7.00 am Tony Richards notified his PD. The latter was very appreciative of the fact that his Assistant had acted very responsibly and taken it upon himself to dispense with the formalities.

 The conclusion as to why the Appu would have gone to the tool shed at that hour of the night was because he may have left something behind since he used to visit the tool shed himself and had gone to retrieve it. The result of the post mortem showed he had died of a massive heart attack. If he had not gone to the tool shed, he would have suffered the attack in his quarters adjoining the bungalow.

 

EPILOGUE.

Despite the sadness of the Appu losing his life, this story in reference Tony Richards planting career had a very happy ending. He was very good at his work and while on this plantation was reputed to have had the best nursery in the district. The story did the rounds that he could get the work done from his bungalow !! Noted for his skills in managing even tough labour, he soon received his first promotion as Superintendent and ended up managing various plantations before settling down in greener pastures.

Bernard Van Cuyenburg

Bernard VanCuylenburg..



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