The Destructors(2012-02-10 17:37:47)
Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha
Graham Greene (1904-1991) was one of the 20th century’s most versatile story tellers in English literature. This year marks the centenary of his birth, as well as the 50th anniversary of his short story ‘The Destructors.’ When I read this short story for the first time, I was rather surprised and tickled by its haunting, allegorical sweep with the decline of the post-independent Sri Lankan state in a miniaturized version.
In this short story, Greene profiles the activity of a street gang named the ‘Wormsley Common Gang.’ It has a leader called Blackie. Then, Greene presents another member of the gang, Trevor (abbreviated as T in the story), who presents a fresh approach to criminal looting. The target of T’s vandalism is Mr.Thomas’s dilapidated house. ‘Old Misery’ is the nickname given by the gang to Mr.Thomas.
The allegorical equivalents of the main characters in Greene’s short story to Sri Lankan scene are as follows:
Members of the Wormsley Common Gang
1. Leader Blackie = UNP of Senanayakes, Jayewardene and Wickremasinghe (all belonging to the same extended family)
2. T (Trevor) = SLFP of Bandaranaikes (Father, Mother, Daughter and Son – a nuclear family)
3. Mike = military
4. Summers = greedy business moguls linked with UNP or SLFP
5. a fat boy called Joe = Buddhist priests
The gang’s victims
1. Mr.Thomas (alias, Old Misery) = Sinhalese voters
2. Old Misery’s House = Sri Lankan state
A character as an observer
Lorry driver = International community (Americans, Norwegians and Japanese)
The political events in post-independent Sri Lanka from 1948, as influenced by the UNP and the SLFP, have been aptly miniaturized in this allegorical story written in 1954. The original story has four sections. Metaphorically, the end of section 1 brings the SLFP to power in 1956 with padre Bandaranaike at the helm, with his new destruction design of ‘Sinhala Only.’ By the end of section 2, one can sense that the story has advanced to 1977, with the SLFP being defeated and the UNP coming to power again and subtly bringing the military into the forefront. The end of section 3 can be equated to the defeat of the UNP in 1994, and the emergence of daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike's SLFP. When the story ends with section 4, it seems one can visualize the current plight of Sinhalese voters in the garb of lamenting Mr.Thomas (funnily named ‘Old Misery’ in the story) and a demolished Sri Lanka (the house of ‘Old Misery’). Here is the story to enjoy.
The text of ‘The Destructors’
[from, Graham Greene: Twenty-One Stories, Penguin Books, 1973 reprint, pp.181-197.]
It was on the eve of August Bank holiday that the latest recruit became the leader of the Wormsley Common Gang. No one was surprised except Mike, but Mike at the age of nine was surprised by everything. ‘If you don’t shut your mouth,’ somebody once said to him, ‘you’ll get a frog down it.’ After that Mike had kept his teeth clamped except when the surprise was too great.
The new recruit had been with the gang since the beginning of the summer holidays, and there were possibilities about his brooding silence that all recognized. He never wasted a word even to tell his name until that was required of him by the rules. When he said ‘Trevor’ it was a statement of fact, not as it would have been with the others a statement of shame or defiance. The gang met every morning in an impromptu car park, the site of the last bomb of the first blitz. The leader, who was known as Blackie, claimed to have heard it fall, and no one was precise enough in his dates to point out he would have been one year old and fast asleep on the down platform of Wormsley Common Underground station. On one side of the car park leant the first occupied house, No.3. T, whose words were almost confined to voting ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the plan of operations proposed each day by Blackie, once startled the whole gang by saying broodingly,
‘Wren built that house, father says.’
‘The man who built St.Paul’s.’
‘Who cares?’ Blackie said. ‘It’s only Old Misery’s.’
Old Misery – whose real name was Thomas – had once been a builder and decorator. He lived alone in the crippled house, doing for himself.
‘Been to the loo’, one of the boys said, for it was common knowledge that since the bombs fell something had gone wrong with the pipes of the house and Old Misery was too mean to spend money on the property. The loo was a wooden shed at the bottom of the narrow garden with a star-shaped hole in the door: it had escaped the blast which had smashed the house next door and sucked out the window-frames of No.3.
The next time the gang became aware of Mr.Thomas was more surprising. Blackie, Mike and a thin yellow boy, who for some reason was called by his surname Summers, met him on the common coming back from the market. Mr.Thomas stopped them. He said glumly, ‘You belong to the lot that play in the car park?’
Mike was about the answer when Blackie stopped him. As the leader had responsilities, ‘Suppose we are?’ he said ambiguously.
‘I got some chocolates,’ Mr. Thomas said. ‘Don’t like ‘em myself. Here you are. Not enough to go round, I don’t suppose, There never is,’ he added with sombre conviction. He handed over three packets of Smarties.
The gang were puzzled and perturbed by this action and tried to explain it away. ‘Bet someone dropped them and he picked ‘em up,’ somebody suggested.
‘Pinched ‘em and then got in a bleeding funk,’ another thought aloud.
‘It’s a bribe,’ Summers said. ‘He wants us to stop bouncing balls on his wall.’
‘We’ll show him we don’t take bribes,’ Blackie said, and they sacrificed the whole morning to the game of bouncing that only Mike was young enough to enjoy. There was no sign from Mr Thomas.
Next day T astonished them all. He was late at the rendezvous, and the voting for that day’s exploit took place without him. At Blackie’s suggestion the gang was to disperse in pairs, take buses at random and see how many free rides could be snatched from unwary conductors (the operation was to be carried out in pairs to avoid cheating). They were drawing lots for their companions when T arrived.
‘Where you been, T?’ Blackie asked.
‘I’ve been there’ T said.
‘At Old Misery’s.’
‘At Old Misery’s?’ Blackie said. He had a sensation that T was treading on dangerous ground. He asked hopefully, ‘Did you break in?’
‘No. I rang the bell.’
‘And what did he do?’
‘He showed it me.’
‘What did you do it for then?’
T said, ‘It’s a beautiful house.’
‘What do you mean, a beautiful house?’ Blackie asked with scorn.
‘It’s got a staircase two hundred years old like a corkscrew. Nothing holds it up.’
‘What do you mean, nothing holds it up. Does it float?’
‘It’s to do with opposite forces, Old Misery said.’
‘Like in the Blue Boar?’
‘Two hundred years old.’
‘Is Old Misery two hundred years old?’
Mike laughed suddenly and then was quiet again. The meeting was in a serious mood. For the first time since T. had strolled into the car park on the first day of the holidays his position was in danger. It only needed a single use of his real name and the gang would be at his heels.
‘What did you do it for?’ Blackie asked. He was just, he had no jealousy, he was anxious to retain T in the gang if he could. It was the word ‘beautiful’ that worried him – that belonged to a class world that you culd still see parodied at the Wormsley Common Empire by a man wearing a top hat and a monocle, with a haw-haw accent He was tempted to say, ‘My dear Trevor, old chap,’ and unleash his hell bounds. ‘If you’d broken in,’ he said sadly – that indeed would have been an exploit worthy of the gang.
‘This was better,’ T said. ‘I found out things.’
‘Old Misery’s going to be away all tomorrow and Bank Holiday.’
Blackie said with relief, ‘You mean we could break in?’
‘And pinch things?’ somebody asked.
‘I don’t want to pinch anything,’ T said. ‘I’ve got a better idea.’
‘What is it?’
T raised eyes; ‘We’ll pull it down.’ – ‘We’ll destroy it.’
Blackie gave a single hoot of laughter and then, like Mike, fell quiet, daunted by the serious implacable gaze. ‘What’d the police be doing all the time?’ he said.
‘They’d never know. We’d do it from inside. I’ve found a way in. We’d be like worms, don’t you see, in an apple. When we came out again there’d be nothing there – nothing but just walls, and then we’d make the walls fall down – somehow.’
‘We’d go to jug,’ Blackie said.
‘Who’s to prove? And anyway we wouldn’t have pinched anything.’ He added without the smallest flicker of glee, ‘There wouldn’t be anything to pinch after we’d finished.’
‘I’ve never heard of going to prison for breaking things,’ Summers said.
‘There wouldn’t be time,’ Blackie said. I’ve seen housebreakers at work.’
‘There are twelve of us,’ T said. ‘We’d organize.’
‘None of us know how…’
‘I know,’ T said. He looked across at Blackie. ‘Have you got a better plan?’
‘Today,’ Mike said tactlessly, ‘we’re pinching free rides…’
‘Free rides,’ T said. ‘You can stand down, Blackie, if you’d rather…’
‘The gang’s got to vote.’
‘Put it up then.’
Blackie said uneasily. ‘It’s proposed that tomorrow and Monday we destroy Old Misery’s house.’
‘Here, here,’ said a fat boy called Joe.
‘Who’s in favour?’
T said, ‘It’s carried.’
‘How do we start?’ Summers asked.
‘He’ll tell you.’ Blackie said. It was the end of his leadership. He went away to the back of the car park and began to kick a stone, dribbling it this way and that. There was only one old Morris in the park, for few cars were left there except lorries; without an attendant there was no safety. He took a flying kick at the car and scaraped a little paint off the rear mudguard. Beyond, paying no more attention to him than to a stranger, the gang had gathered round T; Blackie was dimly aware of the fickleness of favour. He thought of going home, of never returning, of letting them all discover the hollowness of T’s leadership, but suppose after all what T proposed was possible – nothing like it had ever been done before. The fame of the Wormsley Common car park gang would surely reach around London. There would be headlines in the papers. Even the grown-up gangs who ran the betting at the all-in wrestling and the barrow-boys would hear with respect of how Old Misery’s house had been destroyed. Driven by the pure, simple and altruistic ambition of fame for the gang, Blackie came back to where T stood in the shadow of Misery’s wall.
T was giving his orders with decision; it was as though this plan had been with him all his life, pondered through the seasons now in his fifteenth year crystallized with the pain of puberty. ‘You,’ he said to Mike, ‘bring some big nails, the biggest you can find, and a hammer. Anyone else who can better bring a hammer and a screwdriver. We’ll need plenty of them. Chisels too. We can’t have too many chisels. Can anybody bring a saw?’
‘I can,’ Mike said.
‘Not a child’s saw,’ T said. ‘A real saw.’
Blackie realized he had raised his hand like any ordinary member of the gang.
‘Right, you bring one, Blackie. But now there’s a difficulty. We want a hacksaw.’
‘What’s a hacksaw?’ someone asked.
‘You can get’em at Woolworth’s.’ Summers said.
The fat boy called Joe said gloomily, ‘I knew it would end in a collection.’
‘I’ll get one myself,’ T said. ‘I don’t want your money. But I can’t buy a sledge-hammer.’
Blackie said, ‘They are working on No.15. I know where they’ll leave their stuff for Bank Holiday.’
‘Then that’s all,’ T said. ‘We meet here at nine sharp.’
‘I’ve got to go to church,’ Mike said.
‘Come over the wall and whistle. We’ll let you in.’
On Sunday morning all were punctual except Blackie, even Mike. Mike had had a stroke of luck. His mother felt ill, his father was tired after Saturday night, and he was told to go to church alone with many warnings of what would happen if he strayed. Blackie had had difficulty in smuggling out the saw, and then in finding the sledge-hammer at the back of No.15. He approached the house from a lane at the rear of the garden, for fear of the policeman’s beat along the main road. The tired evergreens kept off a stormy sun; another wet Bank Holiday was being prepared over the Atlantic, beginning in swirls of dust under the trees. Blackie climbed the wall into Misery’s garden.
There was no sign of anybody anywhere. The loo stood like a tomb in a neglected graveyard. The curtains were drawn. The house slept. Blackie lumbered nearer the saw and the sledge-hammer. Perhaps after all nobody had turned up; the plan had been a wild invention; they had woken wiser. But when he came close to the back door he could hear a confusion of sound hardly louder than a hive in swarm; a clickety-clack, a bang bang nbag, a scraping, a creaking, a sudden painful crack. He thought; it’s true, and whistled.
They opened the backdoor to him and he came in. He had at once the impression of organization, very different from the old happy-go-lucky ways under his leadership. For a while he wandered up and down stairs looking for T. Nobody addressed him; he had a sense of great urgency, and already he could begin to see the plan. The interior of the house was being carefully demolished without touching the outer walls. Summers with hammer and chisel was ripping out the skirting-boards in the ground floor dining room; he had already smashed the panels of the door. In the same room Joe was heaving up the parquet blocks, exposing the soft wood floor-boards over the cellar. Coils of wire came out of the damage skirting and Mike sat happily on the floor clipping the wires.
On the curved stairs two of the gang were working hard with an inadequate child’s saw on the banisters – when they saw Blackie’s big saw they signalled for it wordlessly. When he next saw them a quarter of the banisters had been dropped into the hall. He found T at last in the bathroom – he sat moodily in the least cared-for room in the house, listening to the sounds coming up from below.
‘You’ve really done it.’ Blackie said with awe. ‘What’s going to happen?’
‘We’ve only just begun.’ T said. He looked at the sledge-hammer and gave his instructions. ‘You stay here and break the bath and the wash-basin. Don’t bother about the pipes. They come later.’
Mike appeared at the door. ‘I’ve finished the wire, T,’ he said.
‘Good. You’ve just got to go wandering round now. The kitchen’s in the basement. Smash all the china and glass and bottles you can lay hold of. Don’t turn on the taps – we don’t want a flood – yet. Then go into all the rooms and turn out drawers. If they are locked get one of the others to break them open. Tear up any papers you find and smash all the ornaments. Better take a carving-knife with you from the kitchen. The bedroom’s opposite here. Open the pillows and tear up the sheets. That’s enough for the moment. And you, Blackie, when you’ve finished in here crack the plaster in the passage up with your sledge-hammer.
‘What are you going to do?’ Blackie asked.
‘I’m looking for something special.’ T said.
It was nearly lunch time before Blackie had finished and went in search of T. Chaos had advanced. The kitchen was a shambles of broken glass and china. The dining room was stripped of parquet, the skirting was up, the door had been taken off its hinges, and the destroyers had moved up a floor. Streaks of light came in through the closed shuters where they worked with the seriousness of creators – and destruction after all is a form of creation. A kind of imagination had seen this house as it had now become.
Mike said, ‘I’ve got to go home for dinner.’
‘Who else?’ T asked, but all the others on one excuse or another had brought provisions with them.
They squatted in the ruins of the room and swapped unwanted sandwiches. Half an hour for lunch and they were at work again. By the time Mike returned, they were on the top floor, and by six the superficial damage was completed. The doors were all off, all the skirtings raised, the furniture pillaged and ripped and smashed – no one could have slept in the house except on a bed of broken plaster. T gave his orders – eight o’clock next morning, and to escape notice they climbed singly over the garden wall, into the car park. Only Blackie and T were left; the light had nearly gone, and when they touched a switch, nothing worked – Mike had done his job thoroughly.
‘Did you find anything special?’ Blackie asked.
T nodded. ‘Come over here.’ He said, ‘and look’. Out of both pockets he drew bundles of pound notes. ‘Old Misery’s savings.’ He said.
‘What are you going to do? Share them?’
‘We aren’t thieves.’ T said ‘Nobody’s going to steal anything from this house. I keep these for you and me – a celebration.’ He knelt down on the floor and counted them out – there were seventy in all. ‘We’ll burn them,’ he said, ‘one by one,’ and taking it in turns they held a note upwards and lit the top corner, so that the flame burnt slowly towards their fingers. The grey ash floated above them and fell on their heads like age. ‘I’d like to see Old Misery’s face when we are through,’ T said.
‘You hate him a lot?’ Blackie asked.
‘Of course I don’t hate him,’ T said. ‘There’d be no fun if I hated him.’ The last burning note illuminated his brooding face. ‘All this hate and love,’ he said, ‘it’s soft, it’s hooey. There’s only things, Blackie,’ and he looked round the room crowded with the unfamiliar shadows of half things, broken things, former things. ‘I’ll race you home, Blackie,’ he said.
Next morning the serious destruction started. Two were missing – Mike and another boy whose parents were off to Southend and Brighton in spite of the slow warm drops that had begun to fall and the rumble of thunder in the estuary like the first guns of the old blitz. ‘We’ve got to hurry’ T said.
Summers was restive. ‘Haven’t we done enough?’ he said. ‘I’ve been given a bob for slot machines. This is like work.’
‘We’ve hardly started,’ T said. ‘Why, there’s all the floors left and the stairs. We haven’t taken out a single window. You voted like the others. We are going to destroy this house. There won’t be anything left when we’ve finished.’
They began again on the first floor picking up the top floor-boards next the outer wall, leaving the joists exposed. Then they sawed through the joists and retreated into the hall, as what was left of the floor healed and sank. They had learnt with practice, and the second floor collapsed more easily. By the evening an odd exhilaration seized them as they looked down the great hollow of the house. They ran risks and made mistakes; when they thought of the windows it was too late to reach them. ‘Cor,’ Joe said, and dropped a penny down into the dry rubble-filled well. It cracked and span amongst the broken glass.
‘Why did we start this?’ Summers asked with astonishment; T was already on the ground, digging at the rubble, clearing a space along the outer wall. ‘Turn on the taps,’ he said. ‘It’s too dark for anyone to see now, and in the morning it won’t matter.’ The water overtook them on the stairs and fell through the floorless rooms.
It was then they heard Mike’s whistle at the back. ‘Something’s wrong.’ Blackie said. They could hear his urgent breathing as they unlocked the door.
‘The bogies?’ Summers asked.
‘Old Misery,’ Mike said. ‘He’s on his way.’He put his head between his knees and retched. ‘Ran all the way,’ he said with pride.
‘But why?’ T said. ‘He told me…’ He protested with the fury of the child he had never been. ‘It isn’t fair.’
T stood with his back to the rubble like a boxer knocked groggy against the ropes. He had no words as his dreams shook and slid. Then Blackie acted before the gang had time to laugh.
‘He was down at Southend.’ Mike said, ‘and he was on the train coming back. Said it was too cold and wet.’ He paused and gazed at the water. ‘My, you’ve had a storm here. Is the roof leaking?’
‘How long will he be?’
‘Five minutes. I gave Ma the slip and ran.’
‘We better clear,’ Summers said. ‘We’ve done enough, anyway.’
‘Oh no, we haven’t. Anybody could do this’ – ‘this’ was the shattered hollowed house with nothing left but the walls. Yet walls could be preserved. Facades were valuable. They could build inside again more beautifully than before. This could again be a home. He said angrily, ‘We’ve got to finish. Don’t move. Let me think.’
‘There’s no time,’ a boy said.
‘There’s got to be a way,’ T said. ‘We couldn’t have got thus far…’
‘We’ve done a lot,’ Blackie said.
‘No. No, we haven’t. Somebody watch the front.’
‘We can’t do any more.’
‘He may come in at the back.’
‘Watch the back too.’ T began to plead. ‘Just give me a minute and I’ll fix it. I swear I’ll fix it.’ But his authority had gone with his ambiguity. He was the only one of the gang. ‘Please,’ he said.
‘Please,’ Summers mimicked him, and then suddenly struck home with the fatal name. ‘Run along home, Trevor.’
T stood with his back to the rubble like a boxer knocked groggy against the ropes. He had no words as his dreams shook and slid. Then Blackie acted before the gang had time to laugh, pushing Summers backward. ‘I’ll watch the front, T’ he said, and cautiously he opened the shutters of the hall. The grey wet common stretched ahead, and the lamps gleamed in the puddles. ‘Someone’s coming, T. No, it’s not him. What’s your plan, T?’
‘Tell Mike to go out to the loo and hide close beside it. When he hears me whistle he’s got to count ten and start to shout.’
‘Oh, Help, anything.’
‘You hear, Mike’ Blackie said. He was the leader again. He took a quick look between the shutters. ‘He’s coming, T.’
‘Quick, Mike. The loo. Stay here, Blackie, all of you till I yell.’
‘Where are you going, T?’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll see to this, I said, I would, didn’t I?’
Old Misery came limping off the common. He had mud on his shoes and he stopped to scrape them on the pavement’s edge. He didn’t want to soil his house which stood jagged and dark between the bomb sites, saved so narrowly, as he believed, from destruction. Even the fan light had been left unbroken by the bomb’s blast. Somewhere somebody whistled. Old Misery looked sharply round. He didn’t trust whistles. A child was shouting: it seemed to come from his own garden. Then a boy ran into the road from the car park. ‘Mr.Thomas,’ he called ‘Mr.Thomas.’
‘What is it?’
‘I’m terribly sorry, Mr.Thomas. One of us got taken short, and we thought you wouldn’t mind, and now he can’t get out.’
‘What do you mean, boy?’
‘He’s got stuck in your loo.’
‘He’d no business…Haven’t I seen you before?’
‘You showed me your house.’
‘So I did. So I did. That doesn’t give you the right to…’
‘Do hurry, Mr.Thomas. He’ll suffocate.’
‘Nonsense. He can’t suffocate. Wait till I put my bag in.’
‘I’ll carry your bag.’
‘Oh no, you don’t. I carry my own.’
‘This way, Mr.Thomas.’
‘I can’t get in the garden that way. I’ve got to go through the house.’
‘But you can get in the garden this way, Mr Thomas. We often do.’
‘You often do?’ He followed the boy with a scandalized fascination. ‘When? What right?…’
‘Do you see…? The wall’s low.
‘I’m not going to climb walls into my own garden. It’s absurd.’
‘This is how we do it. One foot here, one foot there, and over.’ The boy’s face peered down, an arm shot out, and Mr Thomas found his bag taken and deposited on the other side of the wall.
‘Give me back my bag,’ Mr Thomas said. From the loo a boy yelled and yelled. ‘I’ll call the police.’
‘Your bag’s all right, Mr Thomas. Look. One foot there. On your right. Now just above. To your left.’ Mr Thomas climbed over his own garden wall. ‘Here’s your bag, Mr Thomas.’
‘I’ll have the wall built up,’ Mr Thomas said, ‘I’ll not have you boys coming over here, using my loo,’ He stumbled on the path, but the boy caught his elbow and supported him. ‘Thank you, thank you, my boy,’ he murmured automatically. Somebody shouted again through the dark. ‘I’m coming. I’m coming,’ Mr.Thomas called. He said to the boy beside him, ‘I’m not unreasonable. Been a boy myself. As long as things are done regular.’ I don’t mind you playing round the place Saturday mornings. Sometimes I like company. Only it’s got to be regular. One of you asks leave and I say Yes. Sometimes I’ll say No. Won’t feel like it. And you come in at the front door and out at the back. No garden walls.
‘Do get him out, Mr.Thomas.’
‘He won’t come to any harm in my loo,’ Mr.Thomas said, stumbling slowly down the garden. ‘Oh, my rheumatics,’ he said. ‘Always get’em on Bank Holiday. I’ve got to go careful. There’s loose stones here. Give me your hand. Do you know what my horoscope said yesterday? ‘Abstain from any dealings in first half of week. Danger of serious crash.’ That might be on this path,’ Mr Thomas said. ‘They speak in parables and double meanings.’ He paused at the door or the loo. ‘What’s the matter in there?’ he called. There was no reply.
‘Perhaps he’s fainted.’ The boy said.
‘Not in my loo. Here, you, come out.’ Mr.Thomas said, and giving a great jerk at the door he nearly fell on his back when it swung easily open. A hand first supported him and then pushed him hard. His head hit the opposite wall and he sat heavily down. His bag hit his feet. A hand whipped the key out of the lock and the door slammed. ‘Let me out,’ he called, and heard the key turn in the lock. ‘A serious crash,’ he thought, and felt dithery and confused and old.
A voice spoke to him softly through the star-shaped hole in the door. ‘Don’t worry, Mr.Thomas’ it said, ‘We won’t hurt you, not if you stay quiet.’
Mr.Thomas put his head between his hands and pondered. He had noticed that there was only onle lorry in the car park and he felt certain that the driver would not come for it before the morning. Nobody could hear him from the road in front, and the lane at the back was seldom used. Anyone who passed there would be hurrying home and would not pause for what they would certainly take to be drunken cries. And if he did call ‘Help’, who, on a lonely Bank Holiday evening, would have the courage to investigate? Mr Thomas sat on the loo and pondered with the wisdom of age.
After a while it seemed to him that there were sounds in the silence – they were faint and came from the direction of his house. He stood up and peered through the ventilation hole – between the cracks in one of the shutters he saw a light, not the light of a lamp, but the wavering light that a candle might give. Then he thought he heard the sound of hammering and scaraping and chipping. He thought of burglars – perhaps they had employed the boy as a scout, but why should burglars engage in what sounded more and more like a stealthy form of carpentry? Mr.Thomas let out an experimental yell, but nobody answered. The noise could not even have reached his enemies.
Mike had gone home to bed, but the rest stayed. The question of leadership no longer concerned the gang. With nails, chisels, screwdrivers, anything that was sharp and penetrating they moved around the inner walls worrying at the mortar between the bricks. They started too high, and it was Blackie who hit on the damp course and realized the work could be halved if they weakened the joints immediately above. It was a long, tiring, unamusing job, but at last it was finished. The gutted house stood there balanced on a few inches of mortar between the damp course and the bricks.
There remained the most dangerous task of all, out in the open at the edge of the bomb site. Summers was sent to watch the road for passers-by, and Mr Thomas sitting on the loo, heard closely now the sound of sawing. It no longer came from his house, and that a little reassured him. He felt less concerned. Perhaps the other noises too had no significance.
A voice spoke to him through the hole. ‘Mr.Thomas.’
‘Let me out,’ Mr.Thomas said sternly.
‘Here’s a blanket,’ the voice said, and the long grey sausage was worked through the hole and fell in swathes over Mr.Thomas’s head.
‘There’s nothing personal,’ the voice said. ‘We want you to be comfortable tonight.’
‘Tonight,’ Mr.Thomas repeated incredulously.
‘Catch’ the voice said. ‘Penny buns – we’ve buttered them, and sausage balls. We don’t want you to starve, Mr.Thomas.’
Mr.Thomas pleaded desperately. ‘A joke’s a joke, boy. Let me out and I won’t say a thing. I’ve got rheumatics. I got to sleep comfortable.’
‘You wouldn’t be comfortable, not in your house, you wouldn’t. Not now.’
‘What do you mean, boy?’But the footsteps receded. There was only the silence of night; no sound of sawing. Mr.Thomas tried one more yell, but he was daunted and rebuked by the silence – a long way off an owl hooted and made away again on its muffled flight through the soundless world.
At seven next morning the driver came to fetch his lorry. He climbed into the seat and tried to start the engine. He was vaguely aware of a voice shouting, but it didn’t concern him. At last the engine responded and he backed the lorry until it touched the great wooden shore that supported Mr.Thomas’s house. That way he could drive right out and down the street without reversing. The lorry moved forward, was momentarily checked as though something were pulling it from behind, and then went on to the sound of a long rumbling crash. The driver was astonished to see bricks bouncing ahead of him, while stones hit the roof of his cab. He put on his brakes. When he climbed out the whole landscape had suddenly altered. There was no house beside the car park, only a hill of rubble. He went round and examined the back of his car for damage, and found a rope tied there that was still twisted at the other end round part of a wooden strut.
The driver again became aware of somebody shouting. It came from the wooden erection which was the nearest thing to a house in that desolation of broken brick. The driver climbed the smashed wall and unlocked the door. Mr.Thomas came out of the loo. He was wearing a grey blanket to which flakes of pastry adhered. He gave a sobbing cry. ‘My house,’ he said. ‘Where’s my house?’
‘Search me,’ the driver said. His eye lit on the remains of a bath and what had once been a dresser and he began to laugh. There wasn’t anything left anywhere.
‘How dare you laugh?’ Mr. Thomas said. ‘It was my house. My house.’
‘I’m sorry,’ the driver said, making heroic efforts, but when he remembered the sudden check to his lorry, the crash of bricks falling, he became convulsed again. One moment the house had stood there with such dignity between the bomb sites like a man in a top hat, and then, bang, crash, there wasn’t anything left – not anything. He said, ‘I’m sorry.
I can’t help it, Mr.Thomas. There’s nothing personal, but you got to admit it’s funny.’
[End of Story]
End Note by Sachi Sri Kantha
Now, let me annotate on the allegorical links of this Graham Greene story to the post-independent Sri Lankan history.
The story begins with the characterization of Mike, whom I see as the equivalent of military in Ceylon. Greene portrays him as the ‘youngest’ of the gang, aged nine. This was true to the island’s history as well. Then Greene caricatures Mike’s role with a put-down “‘If you don’t shut your mouth’, somebody once said to him, ‘You’ll get a frog down it.’ After that Mike had kept his teeth tightly clamped except when the surprise was too great.” A prompt reflection of military’s role in the blessed isle since 1962, when they tried to grasp power to themselves amateurishly and flunked.
The leader of the Wormsley Common Gang in section 1 is named Blackie. He can be equated to D.S.Senanayake, the first prime minister of Ceylon, who is honored as the ‘father’ of the contemporary Sri Lankan nation. He was not academically literate, though he was endowed with a politician’s street smart guile. The character T can be equated to padre Bandaranaike, the academically literate schemer with a sharp tongue. That Blackie is less literate than T is shown in Greene’s dialogue through the description that Blackie doesn’t know who Wren is, and when T replies Wren is ‘the man who built St.Paul’s,’ Blackie retorts, ‘who cares.’
In the story, the character T proposes a new style of looting to the gang, with the words, “We’d be like worms, don’t you see, in an apple. When we came out again there’d be nothing here – nothing but just walls, and then we’d make the walls fall down – somehow.’ Apt indeed; this is akin to padre Bandaranaike’s scheme of ‘Sinhala Only in 24 hours.’ Before that time marker in 1956, the Wormsley Common Gang of Ceylon was just engaged in petty crime. Greene’s lines for that early 1950s period of Ceylonese history is revealing: “At Blackie’s suggestion the gang was to disperse in pairs, take buses at random and see how many free rides could be snatched from unwary conductors.”
Towards the end of section 1, Blackie – the leader of the gang – feels that he had lost out to T. In Greene’s words, “It was the end of his leadership. He went away to the back of the car park and began to kick stone, dribbling it this way and that. He thought of going home, of never returning, of letting them all discover the hollowness of T’s leadership, but suppose afterall what T proposed was possible…” In the real history of Ceylon, padre Senanayake had died in 1952, not before secretly anointing his son Dudley Senanayake to lead the political gang; the sulking padre Bandaranaike, realizing the inner motives of the first prime minister and thirsting for power himself, had split to form his own party in late 1951 and rode to victory in 1956 with his new style of looting. The son Dudley Senanayake was literally brooding at the ‘end of his leadership…’ and quit as prime minister in 1953. The UNP was salvaged by the ploys of the then de-facto leader J.R.Jayewardene, after the ascendancy of padre Bandaranaike as the prime minister.
UNP’s turn for looting was handed to them in 1977. This is reflected at the beginning of section 3 of the story. At this point, in the real history of the island, leadership of the ‘Wormsley Common Gang’ had passed onto the hands of de-jure leader J.R.Jayewardene. Jayewardene was the guy who began to use military frequently to entrench himself in power. Mike, in Greene’s story, as I have already indicated, is a parallel to the military. At the beginning of the story, Greene describes Mike as the ‘youngest person in the gang.’ Then, in section 3 of the story, leader Blackie gives an order to Mike. The two sentences of Greene, “Tell Mike to go out to the loo and hid close beside it. When he hears me whistle he’s got to count ten and start to shout.” are pregnant with meaning [especially the second sentence, ‘When he hears me whistle he’s got to count ten and start to shout’!] when we reminisce on the use of the military by the wily Jayewardene.
In section 4 of the story, while holding Mr.Thomas (the Sinhalese voters in the island’s history) as hostage within the loo, the Wormsley Common Gang feed him with buttered penny buns and sausage rolls, telling “We don’t want you to starve, Mr.Thomas.” This is a good allegory to wily Jayewardene’s ploy of withholding general elections in early 1980s, until 1989. The Sinhalese voters were held hostage while feeding them with ‘terror stories’ and a ‘campaign against terrorism.’ Subsequently, general elections were held in 1989, 1994, 2000 and 2001 to placate the locals and for international consumption – but all were comparatively unclean at best and undemocratic at worst. The serving of sausage unhygienically - in Greene’s story by pushing it through the loo’s key hole - which ‘fell in swathes’ over the head of the agonizing victim is also a funny allegory to the plight of Sinhalese voters who have been served with unclean ‘elections’ since 1989.
What I enjoyed most of all was that the story climaxes on the happenings in the loo. What a funny way to depict the ultimate plight of Mr.Thomas [Sri Lankan voters] who trusted the words of the Wormsley Common Gang [UNP and SLFP] and got busted in the loo, of all places. The punch line delivered by the lorry driver character, “I’m sorry I can’t help it, Mr.Thomas. There’s nothing personal, but you got to admit it’s funny.” is vintage Greene. In the real story of Ceylon’s post independence period, the lorry driver is the allegory for the puzzled international observers – call them Americans or Japanese or Norwegians – who have learnt that the local breed of political worms have demolished the ‘house’ of ‘Old Misery’ and nothing of the old version can be retrieved.