I head out of the hotel on my bike. It’s a hire – the last one left – and it’s ill-fitting, a man’s bike, a size too big but it will more than do. I wear my shortish, colourful but sturdy cotton dress. I wasn’t to know when I bought it last winter, that its stiff collar would become its prize feature here under the relentless blaze.
I hoist my leg over the high bar of my bike, as quickly as possibly as there is no graceful way to do it. I wear no helmet – sorry mum – just a straw hat; at least I’m protecting something – it’s hard to shield everything and my skin gets dibs over my brain these days.
I head onto the Galle road and one by one we cross it, almost cheering when we are ‘safe’ to the other side. Here, I’ve re-adopted what I had previously thought of as my Roman approach to road crossing – unless it’s a bus, just walk out with futspa into the traffic and stare down the drivers as you do.
I cycle as part of a small peloton with two other artists – Kathy and Anne. We are more laden than other tourists – our baskets and racks brimming with tripods, speakers, extension leads and yoga mats. We head down the road and turn off and follow the railway track, past the temples and then back along the Galle road, passing the fish market in Dodandua – the fish already caught bought and sold today but their odours and some knowing crows remain. We cross the bridge over and head left at the Chinese restaurant sign and onto the quiet leafy path where houses appear in and out of palms and trees. Past the small Buddha statue and the grey dog who guards it and we are downhill for the home stretch.
The trees above momentarily part and the sun hits us again. It’s baking now – a stupid time of day to cycle I think. I do a mental body scan, see all the skin that’s been exposed during the journey. Did I put sunscreen there? I can almost see freckles form in real time, cancerous cells introducing themselves to each other.
As we turn the final bend, ahead of us are some kids play cricket on the road. The other artists are ahead and turn down the hill and out of sight. I slow down and then screech my breaks to come to a stop. I look around and the children have already run over. They are all little boys and one, gesturing to my basket says ‘sweets’ – I do a sad face and show the contents of my boring bag – shaking my head as I reveal my papers and laptop case. Not today, sorry. I’m awkwardly straddling the too big bike as the boys and I meet. I need to get off or keep going. I can’t straddle this bar much longer.
Looking to the tennis ball in their hand, I ask if I could play cricket with them. With their smiling consent I went to assume a fielding position by the garden wall. From playing with my own brother, I presumed I would have to earn my place as batter or bowler but the rules are different here – or maybe cos I’m a guest they are being nice. The quietest boy immediately outstretches his hand and places the ball in mine. OK, we’re on.
Again I find myself entirely inappropriately dressed for the activity. A short dress with old flip flops that twist as I take my run up. Of course as soon as my arm swings up and over to bowl, my dress follows suit.
For the next forty-five minutes or so, we play and as we do, share the language of cricket 6, 4 and out. I learn their boundaries – a 6 is over the high wall, a 4 the low fence into the ferns – out is the same. I try introducing ‘wides’ with helicopter arms outstretched – I need them for my own bowling efforts – but they are not so interested in such nitty gritty – quite right, it doesn’t add anything to the game, more about my own. As we play, the families – mums, dads and other children assemble to watch. I share smiles and laughs with the adults. One of the women invites me for lunch but I politely refuse – I don’t want to impose myself on anyone.
The game continues and I am given the honour of batting. The bat is beautiful lacquered wood the size of my forearm.
Later, I say I must leave and gesture down the hill to go. Again lunch is offered, this time more specific – rice and curry. I relent and say yes.
Our cricket match pauses for lunch break. I was ushered off the street and into the front garden, around the Tuk Tuk and into the cool of the building. I am processed through the house in single file. Mum, dad, daughter, the eldest boy of about 8, the boy of 6 and the youngest around 4. In a little while, I’ll learn their names – Dulika, Arosho, Thyomi, Chiara, Malisha and Gimante. We came to a stop in the middle room where three bikes stood up in the corner; an adult one, a slightly smaller shiny blue mountain bike and a smaller one with training wheels. In the middle of the space was a table, laid out for a queen – the square yellow table was laid with a colourful fruit tablecloth and three bowls of curries, a salad, a bottle of chilled water and a little bowl of water and a large blue napkin. I was instantly overwhelmed and tried to show my gratitude and impressed face and gestures, ‘istutining’ and placing my hand to my heart. I tried to explain I felt like a king or a queen and proceeding to make what would have seemed like an abstract dance and then in a moment of inspiration, got the napkin- folded in a triangle and placed it on my head in what I was sure looked like a crown. Six people looked back at me perplexed and then deciding to let it go. I took my seat. Momentarily, the mum disappeared and returned with what I could only deduce was a large bib. My King charade hadn’t quite been interpreted as I had hoped.