Cue the queue

 

 

I am one of the 20% of the human race that is currently in lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

The appearance of the easily transmitted and often deadly virus caused Sri Lanka, my present country of residence, to announce a curfew last Friday evening.  This was a sensible decision in my opinion, as there are now about a hundred confirmed Covid-19 cases (though as yet no deaths from it) in Sri Lanka and, if its spread is to be slowed, the authorities needed to take drastic action quickly.  Compare that with the shambles of a response to the crisis going on in the United Kingdom at the moment, mis-orchestrated by bumbler-in-chief Boris Johnson.

 

Consequently, the citizens of Colombo, where I live, were confined to their homes for the next four days.  The curfew was lifted at 6.00 AM this morning – Tuesday, March 24th – but re-imposed in the early afternoon.  This was to allow folk a chance to nip out to the shops and top up on supplies for their kitchens.

 

Okay, the prospect of everyone in Colombo ‘nipping out to the shops’ during the same half-dozen hours was a potentially worrying one, because the supermarkets suddenly being crammed with people trying to buy groceries could lead to a bunch of new Covid-19 infections.  To lessen this danger, it was announced beforehand that the numbers of people on supermarket premises at any one time would be restricted and everyone else would have to queue outside and wait their turn.

 

So I got up reasonably early and headed out at about 7.00 AM – first to the nearest ATM and then to the nearest supermarket, which was Food City on Marine Drive.  There was already much traffic on the road, and the line of vehicles waiting for petrol at the local filling station had already backed up along the next block.  But very few people seemed to be out on foot.  I nearly had the seaward pavement of Marine Drive to myself.

 

Then I arrived at Food City, on the corner of another block, and discovered good news and bad news.  The good news was that Food City was already open – normally it doesn’t start business until about 8.30.  The bad news was that already a queue had formed outside, which was being slowly threaded into the premises by a group of shop-workers and police officers.  I approached from the south and the queue was arranged to the north of Food City’s entrance so, at first, I didn’t see how long it was.  I walked alongside that queue for the whole of the next block, counting the people as I went.

 

At the next corner, where Marine Drive formed a junction with Retreat Road, the queue turned 90 degrees and continued up the latter road.  I kept walking and counting people.  I finally reached the end of the queue two-thirds of the way along Retreat Road, having counted 173.  (Everyone was trying to ‘socially distance’ themselves from one another by keeping a metre of space between them, so it was a pretty long queue for 173 people.)

 

Figuring that I wasn’t going to find anywhere better than this – from what I’ve seen of it, the Marine Drive branch is one of Food City’s less known and less frequented outlets – I took my place as 174th person in the queue and started waiting.  My decision was confirmed when, sometime later, a flustered-looking English lady of about 60 years old walked past talking into a phone.  “I’ve just looked at the Food City on Marine Drive,” she said, “and the queue there’s as bad as everywhere else!”

 

 

The queue inched along.  At about 8.15, I’d advanced to the Marine Drive / Retreat Road corner and the sign with the red, round Food City logo was finally, if only just, in view.  Then, however, there was no further movement for about half-an-hour, which may have been because the Food City staff needed time to restock their shelves and nobody else was allowed in.

 

But movement finally resumed.  By about 9.15 I was standing underneath that sign…

 

 

…and maybe 20 minutes after that, it was finally my turn to enter.

 

 

Inside, the produce section had been entirely stripped, apart from a couple of trays of red onions and a few items of fruit.  But most of the things on my shopping list were available: water, eggs, milk powder, cream, pasta, noodles, margarine, chocolate.

 

Despite the frustrations of the wait, everybody outside Food City showed patience and understanding.  I suppose because of the 30-year civil war and the 2004 tsunami, and the Easter Sunday bombings last year, Sri Lankans are used to having to abide by, and understand the importance of, emergency security measures.  A big thank you is due, though, to the shop-staff and the assigned police officers, who kept the operation running smoothly.

 

To keep myself from going mad with boredom, I’d brought a book along and so I spent those hours in the queue reading.  In fact, a long, grindingly slow queue was probably the best context in which to read this book, for it was Anne Rice’s 1976 gothic opus Interview with the Vampire.  Yes, when you’re queuing for food in the middle of a pandemic crisis, even Ms Rice’s florid and overwrought prose seems the lesser of two evils.

 

 

Something fishy

 

© Heinemann

 

The other week my better half (Mrs Blood and Porridge) and I were travelling in a three-wheeler along Colombo’s Marine Drive when we found unexpectedly found ourselves at the back of a traffic jam.  This was unexpected because we were on a wide part of the drive that isn’t normally prone to bottlenecks; and it was the middle of a Sunday, when Colombo’s frequently severe traffic isn’t that severe.

 

Then we realised that the congestion was caused by a large number of vehicles left parked at the seaward side of Marine Drive.  Crowds of people had climbed out of those vehicles and crossed the railway tracks, which run alongside the drive, to get to the rocky shoreline overlooking the Indian Ocean.  We asked our driver what was happening.  He didn’t know, but thought that someone might have drowned – and the onlookers were there out of ghoulish curiosity to see the police retrieve and remove the body.

 

By chance, the place we were travelling to on Marine Drive, the 14-storey Ozo Hotel, stood opposite the spot that seemed to be the focus of the crowds.  We planned to have some lunch at the hotel’s rooftop bar.  After we’d finally arrived there and taken the lift to the top of the building, the first thing I did was go to the railing and look down over Marine Drive and the railway, shoreline and sea and find out what had been drawing all those spectators.

 

Far below, lying across some sand whilst being gently pummelled by endless silvery breakers, was a big pale carcass maybe twenty feet long.   A carcass of what, I couldn’t tell.  It was so decayed and shapeless and bloated that it was unrecognisable.  I was relieved to be 14 storeys above the scene, well out of the way of what must have been a vile reek of putrefaction.

 

 

At first I thought it might be the remains of a whale-shark – the world’s biggest fish species – because two months earlier someone had told me she’d been scuba-diving at a shipwreck a short distance out into the ocean from Colombo when one of those giant (but non-carnivorous) sharks had swum at her out of the murk and spent a minute moseying around her.  However, according to a news report that appeared subsequently, the badly-decomposed carcass was identified not as a shark but as a whale.

 

This occurred just a fortnight after a well-publicised incident where a 50-foot-long corpse was washed up at Seram Island in Indonesia.  Rotting, but still bleeding enough to turn the surrounding waters red, the thing initially caused speculation that it might be the remains of some gargantuan and hitherto-unknown sea-creature.  Later, though, marine experts were able to identify it, from the presence of baleen plates, grooves along its body and certain skeletal features, as a whale too.

 

Being into literature, the carcass on Marine Drive set me wondering about giant washed-up bodies in books and stories I’d read.  I could think of two examples.  One occurred in the whimsical (and occasionally twee) fantasy novel Mr Pye (1953) by Mervyn Peake, which is set on Sark in the Channel Islands and concerns an eccentric evangelist who arrives to preach a message of love and compassion to the islanders.  A first attempt to convert a mass audience ends in disaster, however – he assembles Sark’s inhabitants on a beach one evening with the promise of a giant picnic, but before he can start proselytising, the waves inconveniently dump a dead whale on the sand nearby and the stench of it drives everyone away.

 

The other example I thought of was the short story The Drowned Giant by J.G. Ballard, which appeared in his 1964 collection The Terminal Beach and, as its name suggests, isn’t about a whale carcass but about a gigantic human one that’s inexplicably deposited on a beach following a violent storm.  In his typically perverse fashion, Ballard has no interest in who the giant was or how he came into existence or how he ended up on the beach.  Rather, he focuses on the reaction to him by the ordinary, normal-sized humans living along the coast.

 

This begins with intense and rather disrespectful curiosity – soon they’re clambering over his huge, dead bulk like the Lilliputians swarming over Gulliver.  Then it turns into even less respectful greed, with the body gradually being dismantled and processed by “a fertiliser company and a cattle-food manufacturer”.  And finally the poor giant fades out of both the landscape and human consciousness.  The stretch of beach that was his final resting place is left empty save for a “clutter of bleached ribs like the timbers of a derelict ship” that “make an excellent perch for the sea-wearying gulls.”  Meanwhile, the anonymous narrator observes that “most people, even those who first saw him cast up on the shore after the storm, now remember the giant, if at all, as a large sea beast.”

 

One of Ballard’s most haunting and melancholic stories, The Drowned Giant can be read here.

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 8

 

 

For the two-and-a-half years that I’ve been in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, an invasion has been taking place.  I think of it as the Invasion of the Pink Pavements.

 

This has not been a quiet, surreptitious, barely noticeable invasion as in Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers, which was filmed four times beginning with Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1956.  No, it’s been a full-on, noisy, destructive invasion, like the one conducted by the Martians in H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, filmed most recently by Steven Spielberg in 2005.  For a long time I watched it rage in the busy coastal neighbourhoods south of central Colombo, in Kollupitya, Bambalapitiya and Wellawatta, along two of the main traffic arteries there, Galle Road and Duplication Road.  New pavements were being installed at the sides of those roads, but what’d been there before seemed to put up a hell of a fight against them.  As I wrote in my notebook in the autumn of 2014:

 

“The objective seems to be, eventually, to replace all the old pavements with new, smart, corporate ones consisting of neat, level surfaces with small, pink bricks organised in geometrical patterns.  And in places, segments of new pavement have appeared; but they’re like small islands of sanity amid the chaos and carnage of yawning holes and trenches, former holes and trenches that’ve been unevenly filled in, hillocks of excavated earth, trucks, JCBs, noise, dust, guys working with shovels, guys idling and leaning on shovels, warning signs, barriers, barricades, milling pedestrians, awkwardly-manoeuvring three-wheelers and confused street-dogs.”

 

And yet, somehow, suddenly, the work ended and the new pavements were complete.  As I said, they’re composed of small pink bricks, though with occasional zigzags of grey brick woven into them.  They also have yellow seams of grooved or studded tactile paving running through them, to help the visually impaired.

 

I wonder if the unexpectedly quick and efficient manner with which the job was finished had something to do with the presidential election held in Sri Lanka in January 2015.  I’ve been in enough places to know that, with an election pending, public construction projects that’ve messily meandered on for years suddenly buck up and get completed in a rush.

 

However, the third main artery in this area of Colombo had been largely untouched by the pink pavements.  Marine Drive runs parallel with Galle Road and Duplication Road and, as its name suggests, follows the coast of the Laccadive Sea.  It’s not quite on the shoreline, as there’s a coastal railway track between them.  Until recently, a pavement existed on the northern stretch of Marine Drive between Kollupitiya and Bambalapitiya Stations; but for the whole way down from Bambalapitya Station to the drive’s end at the southern edge of Wellawatta, pedestrians had to trudge along a dusty, earthen roadside.

 

 

However, Marine Drive, which goes past the bottom of my street, experienced a transformation this summer.  I returned from a holiday and hey presto!  I discovered that a new pink pavement had planted itself on the drive’s hitherto-bare seaward side.

 

I suppose this was unsurprising.  The past few years have seen the once-shabby drive get a dose of gentrification and it’s had fancy new arrivals like the OZO Hotel and the neighbouring NDB Bank building.  No doubt some better-heeled Colombo-ites are walking on it these days and they don’t appreciate getting dirt on their shoes, having their elbows brushed by too-close-to-the-side traffic and having to avoid smelly, open roadside drains.

 

 

The new pavement also allows you to properly pause, look out from the shore and admire the sea.  Previously, if you didn’t want vehicles honking at your back, you had to clamber into the middle of the railway tracks to do this.

 

 

You can also stop and study the interesting new safety signs that the Sri Lankan railway authorities have erected alongside the train-tracks.  Check out the poor guy in the picture in this sign’s top right-hand corner – actually, it looks like it was designed by the late Herschell Gordon Lewis, the subject of this blog two entries ago.

 

 

But this doesn’t mean that pedestrians can navigate all of Marine Drive by pavement now.  A kilometre’s gap still exists immediately south of Bambalapitya Station.  Though the new length of pavement runs up through Wellawatta and part of Bambalapitya, it suddenly stops dead in front of the Westeern Hotel.  There it gives way to a muddle of excavation work.

 

 

Coincidentally, the pavement’s current end-point, the Westeern Hotel, is home to Harry’s Bar, which is one of my favourite spit-and-sawdust pubs in Colombo.  So for now it feels like the city authorities have installed a pathway for me personally, so that I can walk with ease to the door of a treasured drinking hole and back.