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Kelvin mason

Naturally the first time I saw Daniel was at the bus station. Where else would he be on a busy afternoon in the season? He wasn't going anywhere, this was it for Daniel - his place of work. His job started with us, the weary passengers that the bus disgorged onto the dusty street. Welcome to Nuwara Eliya, my tourist brochure read, Sri Lanka's mountain city - the perfect place to spend your summer! Since colonial times the heat beleaguered residents of Colombo, the island's capital, had fled the coastal inferno of April for the relative coolness of these hills.

'Need a room, lady? Somewhere to stay?' The brown face, with its prominent cheekbones and regular teeth, was framed by glossy black hair, hanging shoulder length. The person before me resembled more closely my image of an Apache warrior than a Sri Lankan bus-boy.
'No thanks.' I kept my tone curt, my expression grim. The last thing I wanted was to encourage the attentions of one of these people. Brush them off as quickly as possible, I'd been advised. They were leeches, ready to suck visitors dry.
'O-kay. No problem.'
It was the eyes that did it – guileless, twinkling black eyes. And, as with all beautiful eyes, they were deeply sad. Daniel had already stepped past me, looking for another customer. I tapped his blue denim shoulder.
'I do need somewhere to stay,' I said, 'and later somewhere to live. I've come to work here.'
Daniel cast one last glance over the passengers before turning the full beam of his attention on me. He had little choice, I'd distracted him at the vital moment. Other bus-boys had already secured the custom of the few remaining tourists.
'You're going to stay here?' He looked pleased. He placed his hands on trim blue-jeaned hips and looked me over with a smile. We were about the same height and looked each other straight in the eye. His study of me was openly sexually appraising, but not threatening. Nor unpleasant. And I gave as good as I got.
'I've come to work with the poor...' I didn't get to finish my carefully prepared explanation, Daniel interrupted.
'I'm poor,' he said simply, 'you can work with me.'
And it was my turn to smile.
'Jan Cotton,' I said and we shook hands.

Over the next few months Daniel's help was invaluable. He found me a house, showed me around and explained where and how to get all manner of things not obviously available: car spares, fresh fish, strawberries, even marijuana. I never paid him, though he acted as cash-carrying middle-man in numerous transactions. The prices seemed fair enough, and I supposed Daniel took his cut somewhere along the line. Whenever I offered him money he declined, saying I was his friend and looking hurt. Of course, as my friend, he shared the luxuries of an ex-patriot lifestyle - plentiful cigarettes, chocolate, booze and weekend car rides to the island's beautiful beaches to go wind-surfing and chill out.
But it was access to my music that most pleased Daniel. Stoned, we would sing along together, his voice outrageously flat but so full of joy and energy it didn't matter. He was happiest sitting and listening for hours to western pop and rock. Lounging in an evening arm chair, lazily smoking a cigarette and sipping cold beer, Daniel would periodically close-question me about the music: who were the people in some band or other, what was this or that type of music called, how did the fans dress... There was nothing he didn't want to know. And as he gathered the information - all of it meticulously retained in his head - his eyes sparkled.

Daniel introduced me to his friends: bus-boys and other young men living on the fringes of society. There was Spike, Raj, Mohammed, Lal... Many others. Some of 'The Guys' became regular visitors and occasional guests at my house. They came from the poorest families and were black sheep, rebels. But with a cause. They wanted out of the poverty that ensnared their peers. Appalled at the prospect of a life-time grubbing a farmer’s living on an arid piece of dirt, breaking rocks in a road gang or toiling in a tea factory, they chose to reject their culture and become outcasts.

Once, Daniel and I visited his family. He seldom went back himself because of the disapproval he met, but I encouraged him into the visit for the sake of my own fascination. The house was little more than a chicken coup, a ramshackle shanty without water supply or sanitation. The place was crammed with people and meagre animals. I received a warm welcome from everyone and was treated with overwhelming generosity. A young brother was dispatched to buy biscuits for me to eat with my tea. I knew the whole family could have eaten for a week for the price of those lemon creams. I sipped politely at my tea and ate sparingly. One thing truly amazed me: how did Daniel - indeed all the bus-boys - emerge from surroundings like these every morning dressed and groomed like young studs straight out of a Coca-Cola ad?

A bus-boy's definitive role, his primary function, is male prostitute. He is there to service the desires of the tourists, often working with both sexes, to provide holiday romance: love in the sun. The payment he receives is not always cash. The gift of a jacket here or a Walkman there is often the reward from a professional friendship. But sex for profit is the jewel in the crown for a bus-boy. He has to be able to turn his hand to many things to survive. He operates as guide, minder, money changer, drug dealer... Anything the tourist heart desires.

The guys I knew were hedonists, out to have a good time while the going was good. They worshipped Mammon and regarded all things Western, especially American, as icons, precious visions of another life - one to which they all aspired. Bus-boys were versatile, amazingly resilient and greedy for life. And they were desperate. Above all, they were desperate to escape. They yearned to leave the poverty and the disapproval of their society. They wanted freedom: to take the fun freeway to the free-for-all West where everyone was rich and drove two cars. It would have taken a harder heart than mine to disillusion them.
My new friends looked dangerous. They dressed in blue denims, leather jackets and head-bands. They adorned themselves with tattoos, mirror sunglasses, heavy silver earrings, neck-chains and bracelets. Their largo had to be cool, their postures macho and their bodies trim. They were heavily under the stylistic influence of the thrillingly Bad Michael Jackson. The Jacko videos we watched at my house were worn thin and white-static with over-playing. Daniel, until he smiled, was a particularly bad looking dude. With his savage's face, broad shoulders and worked-out arms swelling from a sleeveless T-shirt, he appeared street-wise and alarming.

But I'd come to know him. And so it was no surprise to me when, after an evening of telling ghost stories around the fire, I had to walk him home. He was scared of the dark, terrified of ghouls and - more practically - robbers. That night as I walked beside him, he was embarrassingly grateful for my company. He talked freely, revealing more of himself than usual. He confided that violence terrified him. Merely to speak of it left him visibly paled. The political situation in the country was something he could hardly bring himself to discuss. He floundered on the details of the conflict and shied away from analysis. As the conversation continued, I realised that, despite his avid grip of pop culture and his phenomenal memory for music trivia, Daniel was not a wise man.

The more I learned of Daniel's history, the more my observation was confirmed. Ever since his earliest school days Daniel had, in his own words, 'been done down'. He was too trusting, too gullible to play the hand life had dealt him. In spite of his appearance, people sensed his lack of guile and inevitably took advantage. Even, or rather especially, the other bus-boys regularly took him to the cleaners. They short-changed him on currency deals, sold him marijuana cut with green tea leaves, sent him on fool's errands... It said a great deal for Daniel that his good nature always prevailed. He returned from any wild goose chase with a happy face and a story to tell. Invariably, he had met nice people, made friends, and got into an adventure.

Spike, his 'best-best friend', was Daniel 's nemesis. Not that there was any justice in the way Spike treated Daniel, but the former had certainly been responsible for many a downfall - all of which he loved to relate. Spike's earliest memory, and one of his favourite anecdotes, was blaming Daniel for a shit he himself had done on the schoolroom floor. Daniel would endure Spike's animated performance of this story with good humour. His first recollection of Spike, he would then relate, was when his friend had pulled him, a half-drowned five-year old, from the river.
'He saved my life that day,' Daniel stated, his eyes brimming with tears.
Spike was small and wiry with dark skin and shockingly blue eyes, presumably inherited from some seafaring European ancestor. When I looked into those electric orbs, I saw cunning, quick wits and a steel ring of self-interest. Spike was a villain, a rogue - charming and attractive, but definitely not to be trusted. He was my least favourite among the bus-boys, though, if I'm honest, he was the easiest to relate to. He was articulate and gave me insights into the island's society and culture that the others were unable to communicate. And if ever I tentatively raised Spike's short-comings, Daniel was always the first to jump to his friend's defence.
'I think maybe Spike is taking tapes from here,' I suggested once.
'Oh no, he wouldn't do that!' Daniel paused for a long moment. 'Maybe he's borrowing them to record. I will see he brings them back.'
On another occasion I told him: 'Spike's ripping you off for that Walkman, it's worth much more than one hundred rupees.'
'Ah, it's o-kay. He's my oldest friend.' And a wide-eyed smile added, he would never cheat me.
Then one day, when I'd lived in Nuwara Eliya for several months, Daniel rushed into my kitchen, interrupting my frantic new campaign to annihilate the ubiquitous cockroaches. He was very excited and out of breath.
'She has come!' he managed to pant.
'Good,' I grinned, 'that's always nice.'
'No, not that way.' Shy and embarrassed, he averted his eyes from my gently mocking gaze. 'I mean I am in love. And she loves me!'

The latter statement was appended in response to my arched eyebrow. Our many long evening talks had revealed Daniel was no stranger to falling in love. One night, very stoned, he reached a total of thirty-eight 'affairs of the heart' before we collapsed in fits of drug-induced giggles. And, by that stage, we were still only into his early twenties. It shocked me when I first learned Daniel's age. He was almost forty, though he looked at least ten years younger. Spike always claimed to be his junior, but was reticent about being specific. If you looked long and hard at the pair of them there were tell-tale signs: skin which had lost the taut smoothness of youth; crows-feet furrowing from the corner's of laughing eyes; tobacco stained fingers and teeth.
'She's called Sonja,' Daniel continued. 'She's Belgian; you'll meet her; she's taking me to Belgium; she's twenty-three and so very very beautiful.'
He was obviously besotted. He cast his arms around in expansive gestures as he spoke, focusing glistening eyes on the kitchen ceiling, clasping his hands over his heart. He started to rush on, tripping over his words, becoming breathless again.
'Whoa! Slow down. Have a cigarette, some tea - chill out.'
When he'd calmed down a little and we sat smoking cigarettes and sipping tea, strong and sweet in the Sri Lankan style, Daniel filled me in. He had met Sonja a week ago and they had spent most of the last seven days in bed.
'That first morning when I looked at her sleeping, I knew she was the one.'
'Love at first light!' I joked.
Unimpressed and undaunted, Daniel continued, 'On Saturday she returns to Belgium - Bruxelles! And I will go with her. Once we get there I'll get a job and we'll get married so I may stay.'
'This Saturday?' It was only three days away. Daniel shook his head in confirmation - an indigenous gesture with which I was now comfortable. 'You've got it all figured out then?' I was warmed by Daniel's joy and swept along on the tide of his enthusiasm. He shook his head.
'We will live happily for ever after.'
'I'll miss you, my friend,' I said, and felt a strange sadness settle heavily in my chest.
'You will visit us when you return to Europe?' It was more a statement than a question.
'Of course,' I said, but couldn't picture it.

There was an impromptu party at my house the day before the happy couple departed. I met the lovely Sonja - and she was truly lovely - but we didn't talk. Maybe I avoided a conversation, afraid to raise spectres for her that might impinge on Daniel's dream. Was she prepared for the reaction of family and friends? A holiday romance was one thing, but bringing home a prospective husband was quite another. How would Daniel cope with being transplanted to Bruxelles – the culture, the weather... What work could he do? I stilled my fears, and prayed silently that it would work out for them.
It was a good party, we danced till dawn and drank innumerable toasts to the happy couple. Spike was in his element, keeping everyone entertained with a rich fund of stories and performing numerous tricks. In a drunken sentimental gesture I bestowed upon Daniel the only thing of mine he'd ever directly asked for. As the party jerked into its death throes on the dance floor I gave him my Clash, 'Straight to Hell', T-shirt. He embraced me and we shook hands for a long time. After that, I can't remember much.
I slept most of Saturday, slowly recovering from the night's excesses. In the evening I went out in search of a ferociously hot curry, as all Sri Lankan curries are. Meandering through the twilight streets, I met Raj.
'Fancy a curry and some beers at the Tristar?’ I asked. Obviously, he would be my guest and I would pay.
'Sure.' We walked along, gossiping and giggling over incidents from the party.
'Did they get off all right this morning?' I inquired after Daniel and Sonja.
'Sure, they caught a lift on a tea truck going down to Colombo.'
'Spike went with them.'
'To see them off. And do some business in town.'

We continued on our way in silence. The curry was good, burning any remnants of poison out of my system. We ate with our fingers in the customary way. I sweated profusely, the chilli making my face glow red. A ceiling fan rotated ineffectively, failing to disturb the thick evening air. But the beers went down ice-cold and easy, cooling the fire in my throat. Gecko's attended stoically around the walls of the restaurant, ready to make their own meal of incautious mosquitoes. Raj and I were joined by several others - travellers and bus-boys. Soon our table was a cosmopolitan hubbub of chatter and laughter. I relaxed and forgot about Daniel.
It was months before I received news of my friend and his bride-to-be. Once again it was Raj who brought me up to date. I picked him up on the road, late one very dark night, about twenty mile from Nuwara Eliya. I'd been visiting friends and he'd been down to the west coast, working the tourist beaches. We drove a while in tired but companionable silence. Then Raj spoke, casually dropping his bomb-shell.
'I saw Daniel,' he said calmly, as if it should come as no surprise.
'How...' I stammered. ‘Where?’
'Hika,' Raj said, indicating the most famous of the coastal resorts. Not my favourite place, but a very popular spot, particularly with homosexual tourists. The last time I'd been there the beach was almost exclusively populated by fat, mostly German, men: oiled, deeply tanned and sporting only minuscule posing pouches.
'What happened to Sonja?' I asked.
'Belgium,' Raj looked across at me. 'With Spike.'
'How the Hell?'
'Daniel didn't like to say. But then we smoked a little grass and he told me. On the truck down to Colombo Daniel went to sleep on the bags of tea. He was tired after the party.'
'It was quite a night,' I recalled.
'Sure. Anyway, when he woke up Spike and Sonja were...' Raj turned to me, his palms open and shoulders raised. 'You know,' he shrugged.
'No! Even Spike wouldn't...'
'He did,' Raj said, shaking his head.
'I don't know any more. Daniel says they went to Belgium together.'
'So why is Daniel in Hika? Why doesn't he come home?' A sad smile flicked across Raj's normally impassive face.
'He is too ashamed to come home. I don't think we'll see him in Nuwara Eliya again. I promised him I would say nothing. He doesn't want anyone to know about it - or about what he does now.' I locked my eyes on Raj's face, confirming what I already knew.
'How is he?' I asked.
'He does not look well.' Raj looked away from me, out into the impenetrable night. 'He has grown very thin.'
'What can we do?'
'There is nothing you can do.' Raj turned to face me and our eyes met. 'That's life for us. Some are lucky - or clever like Spike - and some are not.'
'It's not fair,' I said, 'Daniel is so... gentle.'
'He's too soft.' Raj's voice had a brittle edge.
'Are you lucky?' I asked, meeting his eyes again.
'Maybe,' he said. 'Who's to tell? There's still time for me.'
'And for Daniel?'
'I think his time is almost up.'
'Spike's a bastard,' I said.
'He saved Daniel's life once,' Raj reminded me.
'So?' I puzzled.
'Spike told me it was him who pushed Daniel in the river.'

For a few mile we lapsed into silence again, a stiffer, less comfortable silence, each preoccupied. When we were approaching the city limits of Nuwara Eliya. Raj visibly brightened.
'March,' he said, 'the season will start soon; visitors will come. Then we'll have some fun, eh?'
'Yeah,' I managed, 'fun in the sun.'
'I'd like to find a nice British girl like you, Jan,' Raj said, smiling. 'Just like you,' he added, fluttering his long lashes and flirting unashamedly.
'Dream on,' I said.
'What is Britain really like?' Raj asked.
And, for Daniel's sake, I told him.
© Kelvin Mason 2001

Kelvin's Novels

The Advent of the Incredulous Stigmata Man and Cold Snap can be purchased direct at discounted prices. They will be sent, wrapped in corrugated cardboard in a similar fashion to Amazon despatches. The cost within Britain then works out to a mere £6.95 inc. postage and packing - cover price £7.99. If you order both Cold Snap and Stigmata Man, moreover, they will cost a paltry £13.90 inclusive. And you can expect to receive your book or books goods within one working week.
All you have to do is send a cheque made out to me – Kelvin Mason - to Steve Pullinger at 56, Dillwyn Road, Sketty, Swansea SA2 9AE. You also, of course, have to tell Steve what you want and where to send it. Books purchased as gifts can be mailed directly to the lucky person.
Cold Snap is also still available from – but, of course, at the full cover price plus p&p.
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