On A Balcony in Sri Lanka

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They needed a weapon. Not to hurt anyone of course, just to cause a diversion, enough of a distraction to get past the guards in the entrance lobby. To reach the tuktuk driver undetected.

She hoped the drivers would still be there, would be willing to help them. They looked as though they would be, would be willing to do anything for a price. And the invasion of the hotel had been so stealthy, so professionally implemented with a minimum of fuss, avoiding detection from the outside world, that it was likely those outside of the perimeter of the hotel were still in ignorance. Still unaware of the silently moving gunmen, the imprisonment of foreign guests.

She knew of one weapon. If it could be called that. She had seen him using it while she was writing on her balcony the day before. Before the gunmen came, moving like shadows through the hotel, demanding everyone return to their rooms. Before their world turned inside out. When everything was still normal, the sunlight warming the tiled floor of her balcony, the sea crashing against the beach, storm clouds far away on the horizon.

She had been resting from her work, gazing out across the sea and the lawns, when she had seen him. The hotel grounds were full of crows. Crows or ravens or jackdaws – she didn’t know which. A large black bird that landed greedily whenever she ate, staring at her, trying to hypnotise her into sharing her food. They called constantly, their screech as constant as the rolling waves. She had been standing, enjoying the warm blanket of humid air, scanning the black horizon as the next band of rain raced towards shore, watching the palm trees dance in the wind.

She saw him on the lawn, next to the pool bar, near the steps to the sea wall. He was dressed in white, like all the staff, his skin almost as black as his hair. He turned, following the flight of the crows, hands raised, catapult ready. When he noticed her watching he ducked behind the building, out of sight. Perhaps some guests had complained. They liked to photograph the birds, were sometimes seen feeding them, encouraging their numbers. The hotel knew this was foolish, that they carried germs and caused damage. It was easier to scare away the birds than to reeducate the guests. So they hired catapult man.

The next time she had seen him, she had been quick to wave. To let him know that she approved, was friendly, on his side. The third time he waved back, smiled. Teeth very white against his dark face. Was that enough? Did that make him a friend? Could she now ask him for help? Did he even speak English? She didn’t know. But he was her only chance and they didn’t have long.

They needed to leave quickly, before news of the siege became known. Before people started choosing sides. Before the government sent troops and the gunmen became fearful.

It had to be her who went. They argued about that, of course, he wanted to be the one who left the relative safety of the room. The one to risk losing anonymity, to become a possible target. But they both knew that she was right. He was too great a prize, his capture would mean something. And he would be noticed. A foreign business man – even in casual clothes he was unmistakably so – was a valuable hostage. One that might be made an example of. So it had to be her.

She dressed carefully. No make-up, hair tied back, clothes – what she referred to as ‘missionary clothes’- the high necked, long sleeved baggy blouse and loose trousers. She was well travelled, she knew that there was nothing in the whole world as invisible as an unattractive middle-aged woman.

He looked at her before she left. One long look. No kiss, not wanting to risk affection that might cause feelings, arouse emotions that needed to be held in check. Feelings could come later. She knew what he was saying, thinking, feeling. It needed no words.

Then she left the sanctuary of their room. Heard the door lock behind her. Headed for the stairs. The stairs were beautiful, reflected the old world elegance of the rest of the hotel. Dark wood bannisters, wide stairs with plush red carpet, sweeping under the paneled ceiling, curving down into the entrance lobby.

She met the first gunman on the landing, leaning against the bannister, next to one of the carved elephants. His gun was hanging loose at his side, cigarette in mouth, casual. No older than her boys at home. He stiffened when he saw her, raised the gun.

“Why are you out? Go back to your room,” he said.

She feigned ignorance. Pointed authoritatively down to the lobby, said something indiscernible, a made-up language. Hoped her age would remind him of his mother, her non words would be taken as a language, her confidence would give her authority. Few people will argue with someone foreign, someone who won’t understand them. He would either resort to physical instruction, possibly violence, or would consider her low risk and high effort and would let her pass.

He spat, did nothing, she passed.

Down the stairs to the lobby. There were two men guarding the glass doors. No one behind the desk. There was shouting in a far off room, but the entrance was calm, guarded but casually so. They weren’t expecting trouble. No one outside knew anything was amiss. There had been no declaration, no demands made, no threats. The world was unchanged.

Beyond the glass doors she glimpsed the tuktuk men, waiting in vain for fares. Beyond them, on the green, families still flew kites, hawkers shouted their wares, the ancient snake charmer sat with his round basket, waiting for tips. A normal day.

She continued down, not looking at the groups of young men she passed, not running but walking fast. Somewhere to go. Clear direction, confident, legitimate. There were more stairs beyond the restaurant and she went down them, guessing they would lead to the kitchen area, to the staff quarters.

One more guard. One more loud, nonsensical conversation, spoken with the authority of mothers and aunts the world over, rarely questioned by young men. Even young men with guns. She was, after all, just a woman. A middle-aged woman.

Into the kitchen. The staff were surprised to see her. They began to rise, their training ingrained, anxious that a guest had strayed into their domain, keen to help, to lead her back to the public areas. She ignored them, headed straight to where catapult man was cowering in the corner. Told him her plan. Offered him money, showed him enough to make him listen, to nod, to agree to the risk.

The rest was easy. She returned to their room, same non-conversation with same young guard on the stairs. He left as she passed, determined to find a higher authority, to discover who she was and if she was legitimate.

That gave them time. Only a slither, but long enough. Enough for her to tap on the door, to tell him to hurry, to flee the way she had come. Back down the stairs. Pausing on the bend. Waiting for catapult man to do his best. To shatter a window to the left – the first thing she had ever seen him hit – enough time for a distraction, to remove the guards, very briefly, from their post.

Then out the door. Running now, calling to the tuktuk man, showing money, the language they would understand, climbing aboard, sinking back behind the window, shouting “airport”, feeling the lurch as the three wheeler pulled away. Into traffic. Amongst cars. Towards safety.

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Thank you for reading.

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One thought on “On A Balcony in Sri Lanka

  1. Powerfully gripping …..kept me on the edge of my seat….
    difficult to put down…..
    such relief to read the last sentence….!

    Like

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