In the Red Room
by Paul Bowles
Approximate Word Count: 3690
When I had a house in Sri Lanka, my parents came out one winter
to see me. Originally I had felt some qualms about encouraging
their visit. Any one of several things--the constant heat, the
unaccustomed food and drinking water, even the presence of a
leprosy clinic a quarter of a mile from the house might easily
have an adverse effect on them in one way or another. But I had
underestimated their resilience; they made a greater show of
adaptability than I had thought possible, and seemed entirely
content with everything. They claimed not to mind the lack of
running water in the bathrooms, and regularly praised the curries
prepared by Appuhamy, the resident cook. Both of them being in
their seventies, they were not tempted by the more distant or
inaccessible points of interest. It was enough for them to stay
around the house reading, sleeping, taking twilight dips in the
ocean, and going on short trips along the coast by hired car. If
the driver stopped unexpectedly at a shrine to sacrifice a
coconut, they were delighted, and if they came upon a group of
elephants lumbering along the road, the car had to be parked some
distance up ahead, so that they could watch them approach and
file past. They had no interest in taking photographs, and this
spared me what is perhaps the most taxing duty of cicerone: the
repeated waits while the ritual between man and machine is
observed. They were ideal guests.
Colombo, where all the people I knew lives, was less than a
hundred miles away. Several times we went up for weekends, which
I arranged with friends by telephone beforehand. There we had tea
on the wide verandas of certain houses in Cinnamon Gardens, and
sat at dinners with professors from the university, Protestant
ministers, and assorted members of the government. (Many of the
Sinhalese found it strange that I should call my parents by their
first names, Dodd and Hannah; several of them inquired if I were
actually their son or had been adopted.) These weekends in the
city were hot and exhausting, and they were always happy to get
back to the house, where they could change into comfortable
One Sunday not long before they were due to return to America, we
decided to take in the horse races at Gintota, where there are
also some botanical gardens that Hannah wanted to see. I engaged
rooms at the New Oriental in Galle and we had lunch there before
As usual, the events were late in starting. It was the
spectators, in any case, who were the focus of interest. The
phalanx of women in their shot-silk saris moved Hannah to cries
of delight. The races themselves were something of a
disappointment. As we left the grounds, Dodd said with
satisfaction: It'll be good to get back to the hotel and relax.
But we were going to the botanical gardens, Hannan reminded him.
I'd like to have just a peek at them.
Dodd was not eager. Those places cover a lot of territory, you
know, he said.
We'll look inside and come out again, she promised.
The hired car took us to the entrance. Dodd was tired, and as a
result was having a certain amount of difficulty in walking. The
last year or so I find my legs aren't' always doing exactly what
I want 'em to do, he explained.
You two amble along, Hannah told us. I'll run up ahead and find
out if there's anything to see.
We stopped to look up at a clove tree; its powerful odor filled
the air like a gas. When we turned to continue our walk, Hannah
was no longer in sight. We went on under the high vegetation,
around a curve in the path, looked ahead, and still there was no
sign of her.
What does your mother think she's doing? The first thing we know
she'll be lost.
She's up ahead somewhere.
Soon, at the end of a short lane overhung by twisted lianas, we
saw her, partially hidden by the gesticulating figure of a
Sinhalese standing next to her.
What's going on? Dodd hastened his steps. Run over there, he told
me, and I started ahead, walking fast. Then I saw Hannah's
animated smile, and slowed my pace. She and the young man stood
in front of a huge bank of brown spider orchids.
Ah! I thought we'd lost you, I said.
Look at these orchids. Aren't they incredible?
Dodd came up, nodded at the young man, and examined the display
of flowers. They look to me like skunk cabbage, he declared.
The young man broke into wild laughter. Dodd stared at him.
This young man has been telling me the history of the garden,
Hannah began hurriedly. About the opposition to it, and how it
finally came to be planted. It's interesting.
The Sinhalese beamed triumphantly. He wore white flannels and a
crimson blazer, and his sleek black hair gave off a metallic blue
glint in the sunlight.
Ordinarily I steer a determined course away from the anonymous
person who tries to engage me in conversation. This time it was
too late; encouraged by Hannah, the stranger strolled beside her,
back to the main path. Dodd and I exchanged a glance, shrugged,
and began to follow along behind.
Somewhere up at the end of the gardens a pavilion had been built
under the high rain trees. It had a veranda where a few sarong-
draped men reclined in long chairs. The young man stopped
walking. Now I invite you to a cold ginger beer.
Oh, Hannah said, at a loss. Well, yes. That would be nice. I'd
welcome a chance to sit down.
Dodd peered at his wristwatch. I'll pass up the beer, but I'll
sit and watch you.
We sat and looked out at the lush greenness. The young man's
conversation leapt from one subject to another; he seemed unable
to follow any train of thought further than its inception. I put
this down as a bad sign, and tried to tell from the inflections
of Hannah's voice whether she found him as disconcerting as I
Dodd was not listening. He found the heat of low-country Ceylon
oppressive, and it was easy to see that he was tired. Thinking I
might cover up the young man's chatter, I turned to Dodd and
began to talk about whatever came into my head: the resurgence of
mask-making in Ambalangoda, devil-dancing, the high incidence of
crime among the fishermen converted to Catholicism. Dodd
listened, but did no more than move his head now and then in
Suddenly I heard the young man saying to Hannah: I have just the
house for you. A godsend to fill your requirements. Very quiet
She laughed. Mercy, no! We're not looking for a house. We're only
going to be here a few weeks more.
I looked hard at her, hoping she would take my glance as a
warning against going on and mentioning the place where she was
staying. The young man was not paying attention, in any case.
Quite all right. You are not buying houses. But you should see
this house and tell your friends. A superior investment, no doubt
about that. Shall I introduce myself, please? Justus Gonzag,
called Sonny by friends.
His smile, which was not a smile at all, gave me an unpleasant
Come anyway. A five-minute walk, guaranteed. He looked
searchingly at Hannah. I intend to give you a book of poems. My
own. Autographed for you with your name. That will make me very
Oh, Hannan said, a note of dismay in her voice. Then she braced
herself and smiled. That would be lovely. But you understand, we
can't stay more than a minute.
There was a silence. Dodd inquired plaintively: Can't we go in
the car, at least?
Impossible, sir. We are having a very narrow road. Car can't get
through. I am arranging in a jiffy. He called out. A waiter came
up, and he addressed him in Sinhalese at some length. The man
nodded and went inside. Your driver is now bringing your car to
this gate. Very close by.
This was going a little too far. I asked him how he though anyone
was going to know which car was ours.
No problem. I was present when you were leaving the Pontiac. Your
driver is called Wickramasinghe. Up-country resident, most
reliable. Down here people are hopeless.
I disliked him more each time he spoke. You're not from around
here? I asked him.
No, no! I'm a Colombo chap. These people are impossible
scoundrels. Every one of the blighters has a knife in his belt,
When the waiter brought the check, he signed it with a rapid
flourish and stood up. Shall we be going on to the house, then?
No one answered, but all three of us rose and reluctantly moved
off with him in the direction of the exit gate. The hired car was
there; Mr. Wickramasinghe saluted us from behind the wheel.
The afternoon heat had gone, leaving only a pocket here and there
beneath the trees where the air was still. Originally the lane
where we were walking had been wide enough to admit a bullock-
car, but the vegetation encroaching on each side had narrowed it
to little more than a footpath.
At the end of the lane were two concrete gateposts with no gate
between them. We passed through, and went into a large compound
bordered on two sides by ruined stables. With the exception of
one small ell, the house was entirely hidden by high bushes and
flowering trees. As we came to a doorway the young man stopped
and turned to us, holding up one finger. No noises here, isn't
it? Only birds.
It was the hour when the birds begin to awaken from their daytime
lethargy. An indeterminate twittering came from the trees. He
lowered his finger and turned back to the door. Mornings they are
singing. Now not.
Oh, it's lovely, Hannah told him.
He led us through a series of dark empty rooms. Here the _dhobi_
was washing the soiled clothing. This is the kitchen, you see?
Ceylon style. Only the charcoal. My father was refusing paraffin
and gas both. Even in Colombo.
We huddled in a short corridor while he opened a door, reached
in, and flooded the space inside with blinding light. It was a
small room, made to seem still smaller by having given glistening
crimson walls and ceiling. Almost all the space was filled by a
big bed with a satin coverlet of a slightly darker red. A row of
straight-backed chairs stood along one wall. Sit down and be
comfy, our host advised us.
We sat, staring at the bed and at the three framed pictures on
the wall above its brass-spoked headboard: on the left a girl, in
the middle our host, and on the right another young man. The
portraits had the imprecision of passport photographs that have
been enlarged to many times their original size.
Hannah coughed. She had nothing to say. The room gave off a
cloying scent of ancient incense, as in a disused chapel. The
feeling of absurdity I got from seeing us sitting there side by
side, wedged in between the bed and the wall, was so powerful
that it briefly paralyzed my mental processes. For once the young
man was being silent; he sat stiffly, looking straight ahead,
like someone at the theater.
Finally I had to say something. I turned to our host and asked
him if he slept in this room. The question seemed to shock him.
Here? he cried, as if the thing were inconceivable. No, no! This
house is unoccupied. No one sleeping on the premises. Only a
stout chap to watch out at night. Excuse me one moment.
He jumped up and hurried out of the room. We heard his footsteps
echo in the corridor and then grow silent. From somewhere in the
house there came the sonorous chiming of a grandfather's clock;
its comfortable sound made the shiny blood-colored cubicle even
more remote and unlikely.
Dodd stirred uncomfortably in his chair; the bed was too close
for him to cross his legs. As soon as he comes back, we go, he
He's looking for the book, I imagine, said Hannah.
We waited a while. Then I said: Look. If he's not back in two
minutes, I move we just get up and leave. We can find out way out
Hannah objected, saying it would be unpardonable.
Again we sat in silence, Dodd now shielding his eyes from the
glare. When Sonny Gonzag returned, he was carrying a glass of
water which he drank standing in the doorway. His expression had
altered: he now looked preoccupied, and he was breathing heavily.
We slowly got to our feet, Hannah still looking expectant.
We are going, then? Come. With the empty glass still in his hand
he turned off the lights, shut the door behind us, opened
another, and led us quickly through a sumptuous room furnished
with large divans, coromandel screens, and bronze Buddhas. We had
no time to do more than glance from side to side as we followed
him. As we went out through the front door, he called one
peremptory word back into the house, presumably to the caretaker.
There was a wide unkempt lawn on this side, where a few clumps of
high areca palms were being slowly strangled by the sheaths of
philodendron roots and leaves that encased their trunks. Creepers
had spread themselves unpleasantly over the tops of shrubs like
the meshes of gigantic cobwebs. I knew that Hannah was thinking
of snakes. She kept her eyes on the ground, stepping carefully
from flagstone to flagstone as we followed the exterior of the
house around to the stables, and thence out into the lane.
The swift twilight had come down. No one seemed disposed to
speak. When we reached the car Mr. Wickramasinghe stood beside
Cheery-bye, then, and tell your friends to look for Sonny Gonzag
when they are coming to Gintota. He offered his hand to Dodd
first, then me, finally to Hannah, and turned away.
They were both very quiet on the way back to Galle. The road was
narrow and the blinding lights of oncoming cars made them
nervous. During dinner we made no mention of the afternoon.
At breakfast, on the veranda swept by the morning breeze, we felt
sufficiently removed from the experience to discuss it. Hannah
said: I kept waking up in the night and seeing that awful bed.
I said it was like watching television without the sound. You saw
everything, but you didn't get what was going on.
The kid was completely non compos mentis. You could see that a
mile away, Dodd declared.
Hannah was not listening. It must have been a maid's room. But
why would he take us there? I don't know; there's something
terribly depressing about the whole thing. It makes me feel a
little sick just to think about it. And that bed!
Well, stop thinking about it, then! Dodd told her. I for one am
going to put it right out of my mind. He waited. I feel better
already. Isn't that the way the Buddhists do it?
The sunny holiday continued for a few weeks more, with longer
trips now to the east, to Tissamaharana and the wild elephants in
the Yala Preserve. We did not go to Colombo again until it was
time for me to put them onto the plane.
The black weather of the monsoons was blowing in from the
southwest as we drove up the coast. There was a violent downpour
when we arrived in midafternoon at Mount Lavinia and checked into
our rooms. The crashing of the waves outside my room was so loud
that Dodd had to shut the windows in order to hear what we were
I had taken advantage of the trip to Colombo to arrange a talk
with my lawyer, a Telugu-speaking Indian. We were to meet in the
bar at the Galleface, some miles up the coast. I'll be back at
six, I told Hannah. The rain had abated somewhat when I started
Damp winds moved through the lobby of the Galleface, but the
smoky air in the bar was stirred only by fans. As I entered, the
first person I noticed was Weston of the Chartered Bank. The
lawyer had not yet come in, so I stood at the bar with Weston and
ordered a whiskey.
Didn't I see you in Gintota at the races last month? With an
I was there with my parents. I didn't notice you.
I couldn't tell. It was too far away. But I saw the same three
people alter with a local character. What did you think of Sonny
I laughed. He dragged us off to his house.
You know the story, I take it.
I shook my head.
The story, which he recounted with relish, began on the day after
Gonzag's wedding, when he stepped into a servant's room and found
his bride in bed with the friend who had been best man. How he
happened to have a pistol with him was not explained, but he shot
them both in the face, and later chopped their bodies into
pieces. As Weston remarked: That sort of thing isn't too
uncommon, of course. But it was the trial that caused the
scandal. Gonzag spent a few weeks in a mental hospital, and was
You can imagine, said Weston. Political excitement. The poor go
to jail for a handful of rice, but the rich can kill with
impunity, and that sort of thing. You still see references to the
case in the press now and then.
I was thinking of the crimson blazer and the botanical gardens.
No. I never heard about it, I said.
He's mad as a hatter, but there he is, free to do whatever he
feels like. And all he wants now is to get people into that house
and show them the room where the great event took place. The more
the merrier as far as he's concerned.
I saw the Indian come into the bar. It's unbelievable, but I
believe it, I told Weston.
Then I turned to greet the lawyer, who immediately complained of
the stale air in the bar. We sat and talked in the lounge.
I managed to get back to Mount Lavinia in time to bathe before
dinner. As I lay in the tepid water, I tried to imagine the
reactions of Hannah and Dodd when I told them what I had heard. I
myself felt a solid satisfaction at knowing the rest of the
story. But being old, they might well brood over it, working it
up into an episode so unpleasant in retrospect that it stained
the memory of their holiday. I still had not decided whether to
tell them or not when I went to their room to take them down to
We sat as far away from the music as we could get. Hannah had
dressed a little more elaborately than usual, and they both were
speaking with more than their accustomed animation. I realized
that they were happy to be returning to New York. Halfway through
he meal they began to review what they considered the highlights
of their visit. They mentioned the Temple of the Tooth, the pair
of Bengal tiger cubs in Dehiwala which they had petted but
regretfully declined to purchase, the Indonesian dinner on Mr.
Bultjens's lawn, where the myna bird had hopped over to Hannah
and said: "Eat it up," the cobra under the couch at Mrs. de
Sylva's tea party.
And that peculiar young man in the _strange_ house, Hannah added
Which one was that? asked Dodd, frowning as he tried to remember.
Then it came to him. Oh, God, he muttered. Your special friend.
He turned to me. Your mother certainly can pick 'em.
Outside, the ocean roared. Hannah seemed lost in thought. _I_
know what it was like! she exclaimed suddenly. It was like being
shown around one of the temples by a _bhikku_. Isn't that what
they call them?
Dodd sniffed. Some temple! he chuckled.
No, I'm serious. That room had a particular meaning for him. It
was like a sort of shrine.
I looked at her. She had got to the core without needing the
details. I felt that, too, I said. Of course, there's no way of
She smiled. Well, what you don't know won't hurt you.
I had heard her use the expression a hundred times without ever
being able to understand what she meant by it, because it seemed
so patently untrue. But for once it was apt. I nodded my head and
said: That's right.