The Bottle of Whiskey
“The Bottle of Whiskey” is from Roshi Fernando’s collection, Homesick (Vintage, 2013). Fernando was awarded the Impress Prize for New Writers for Homesick, which comprises a series of interlinked short stories about a community of Sri Lankan immigrants in London. Homesick was originally republished by Bloomsbury (UK and Commonwealth) and Knopf (USA). In 2011 her story “The Fluorescent Jacket” was shortlisted for the EFG Sunday Times short story prize.
Fernando said this about how she came to write her story: My parents arrived in London from Sri Lanka in the mid-1960s, and were seen as latecomers by those first off the boats and already well established. Dad was friends with many of these old hands, one of whom was Mr. B., a shady-looking man who was tight-lipped, but a generous host.
Dad would take me, his three-year-old daughter, seated in the front seat of a borrowed pale yellow Ford Cortina, to see Mr. B and his wife and daughters every so often, on a Saturday morning. Mrs. B. was indulgent of every child, forcing open fat cheeks with a pinch of her fingers to place sweet, hot pastry into shy mouths. She and her daughters played with my hair, squeezing me as they poked and prompted me to speak in my English accent, which made them laugh.
Mr. B would sit in the corner of his sitting room, his shiny suit jacket around the back of his kitchen chair, his shirt sleeves rolled up, his tie still tight up under his chin, after a night at the casino. Mr. B worked for criminals. Drinking hot, sugary black coffee and smoking cigarette after cigarette with my father, looking out of the window of their top floor flat in Bayswater, he would murmur quietly to Dad, downloading whom he had met and what he had seen. He would take a comb from his suit pocket and comb back his oiled helmet. He was sinister, strange and unhappy: very striking to a three year old. Once I heard him say he’d killed a man, and later my father said in the car – ‘Ro, that’s something you cannot repeat.’
It’s the secrets you’re asked to keep as a child that are carried forward into adulthood like guarded treasure.