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Private Investigations: “An Extra Child” by Sulari Gentill

In this thrilling anthology, bestselling mystery writers abandon the cloak of fiction to investigate the suspenseful secrets in their own lives. Start reading “An Extra Child” by Sulari Gentill, author of the Rowland Sinclair Mystery series, below.

 

AN EXTRA CHILD

By Sulari Gentill

 

The box lived in the back of a cupboard. That in itself made it interesting. I suppose our flat-roofed house didn’t have an attic, so the cupboard served that purpose. In it would be stored those items which had no place in the light of day, but which were valued or somehow important, even if the reason for that importance had been long forgotten.  As a child, I would hide treasures in the cupboard and try to forget that I’d done so, just so that I could rediscover them after they’d had been imbued with the magic that lingered there.

 

The box, however, did not need such contrivance; it was truly an object of wonder. It contained evidence of a life that had become a secret, lost to an agreement to pretend.

 

I am the middle of three daughters, born in Sri Lanka in a province known as Slave Island—so named because it was once a port at which the slaving ships stopped on their way to America. My parents made me an immigrant before I was two years old. Of course, I was too young to care one way or another. The boundaries of my world still stopped at my family. A brief stint in London and five years in Zambia, where my sisters and I learned to speak English. By the time I was seven, I was Australian.

 

Ours was a typical immigrant family from south Asia. My parents placed a premium on education and were indifferent to sports. It did make us a little odd in sports-mad Australia, but we became Australian nonetheless. We adopted the inflection and humour of our new country and navigated that line that all immigrant children walk, between the customs of where we were from and where we stood.

 

As the years passed, my sisters and I stopped speaking Singhalese and, like trees, our new growth was ever further from our roots. We unfurled and flowered in the Australian sun, thriving in the dappled shade of gumtrees. Even so, I was aware that we were alone in this wide brown land. My parents were both from large families, but we lived half a planet away from grandparents, or cousins or anyone who knew our history. There were no aunts and uncles to tell us funny stories about our parents, no collection of people with similar faces. At that distance, secrets were easily kept.

 

Perhaps my father sensed that the threads which connected us to the country of our birth were snapping one by one. The summer I was eight, he flew the whole family back to Sri Lanka. He rented a van and, in the weeks we were there, he took us to see every temple, monument and ruin on the island—and Sri Lanka is not short of temples, monuments and ruins. He was man on a mission, taking his daughters on a cultural boot camp, fertilising our shallow roots in this place with a grand tour of the old country. How enthusiastically he would point to ancient statues of Sri Lankan kings and remind us that there was our mother’s multiple-great grandfather, our lofty heritage. Even as an eight-year-old, I could hear a kind of awe in his voice as he spoke of my mother’s bloodline. I found it curious. I was fiercely egalitarian by then, but the idea of being some kind of princess had an undeniable and sparkly appeal. But it was fleeting. I was too much a tomboy to be mesmerised by a metaphorical tiara for long.

 

We called upon all the uncles and aunts, the cousins, the second cousins, the people who were somehow related, though no one was quite sure how. The vast estates of my mother’s people—houses large enough to seem empty—and the humbler homes of my father’s family. I was probably too young to entirely comprehend who my mother’s family was in the context of the country I’d left as an infant. The descendants of kings, they were the guardians of religion, and from their ranks came Sri Lanka’s first prime ministers, its governors, diplomats and generals. Their sons were educated abroad, their daughters accomplished; they were patriots and leaders. Most impressive to eight-year-old me was a more recent ancestor whose head resided in the Tower of London, where it was taken after he was beheaded for leading a revolt against the British. Sri Lanka was a country in which who your family was mattered, where lines could be traced back thousands of years. As far as cultural baptisms went, it was not a mere sprinkling, but an absolute dunking, undertaken in the hope that it would be enough to keep us at heart Sri Lankan, or at least keep Sri Lanka in our hearts; that our roots would be strong enough to survive in transplantation.

 

Six weeks later, we returned to Australia, a Western democracy whose kings and queens were foreign and relatively unthought-of, unless there was a royal wedding in the offing. Sri Lanka receded into a memory of our last grand exotic holiday, and the relatives we had met and embraced became stories again as we returned to the business of school and friends and suburban survival.

 

There were photos of that holiday, of course, printed and placed in an album specially bought. But it was not that collection, the images of us on beaches, in front of temples, with various groups of relatives, to which we were drawn. Perhaps it was because they were photos of foreigners on holiday, tourists… and we knew about the box.

 

It contained old photographs. Black and white, printed in smaller format and in different shapes to the standard 4×6-inch prints of the day. Taken on box brownies and in studios, long before we were born, they gave us a glimpse of our parents when they were not our parents.

 

The photos of my dad were taken when he was a young man, on a borrowed camera. Posed photographs of his sisters in their best saris, my grandmother when her hair was grey rather than white, and my father smiling, confident, a brown-skinned Elvis on a tropical island.

 

The photographs from my mother’s side were taken over a much greater span of time. Her family was wealthy enough to own cameras, to use them for more than special occasions. Pictures of Victorian children, my grandmother in curls and bows and holding a hoop in front of the painted backdrop of an English garden. We were mesmerised by that photograph—the camera had caught something wistful and sad about that little girl. There was a studio photo of my grandfather inscribed to his then fiancée, hair slicked back, movie-star handsome. My grandmother as a young woman, bespectacled, unsmiling. Formal wedding photographs, a 1920s honeymoon in Egypt. Then a tribe of children on the family estate.

 

The story of our grandparents laid out before us.

 

These photographs invited our imaginations into their younger lives, into their stories, in a way that knowing them as our grandparents never did.

 

We spent many hours with these old photographs, demanding details from our mother as to their subjects and locations and occasions. In my family, my mother was the storyteller. She had an innate understanding of structure and pace, the ability to make the most mundane events sound exciting and magical. She was a spinner of drama, a master of the reveal, and so we would pester her for stories and she became a kind of verbal text to the picture book we found in that box. She told us that the little girl in curls and bows had a younger sister she had loved dearly who was killed in an accident when the family chauffeur was drunk, that later her engagement to the devastatingly handsome young man in the portrait had been broken off when he became a Communist while studying in Edinburgh. That the two had been reconciled eventually and married in a spectacular wedding that united two of the great houses of Sri Lanka. She allowed us to play with the exquisite dressing table set which the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka had given them as a wedding present, and described the other riches gifted by foreign dignitaries and grand guests.

 

We knew that little girl, of course. She was our grandmother. Small, quiet, distant. She had travelled with us for part of our grand tour, and though we had become accustomed to her presence, to us she remained enigmatic. We had only snippets of memory of our grandfather, still handsome in old age. He smoked a pipe and seemed vaguely English, though he wore a sarong. Perhaps because we didn’t really know them, it was easy to imagine them as young, the hero and heroine of story to rival that of Elizabeth Bennet and her Mr. Darcy.

 

And then there were the photographs of the children. Girls in white dresses, boys in over-sized shorts and collared shirts. Pictures taken on the estate, posing with bicycles, sitting in Banyan trees, walking by the lake, and formal photos of the children together, direct unsmiling gazes. My mother was the youngest by a long way so she was not in all these group sittings, which is probably why it took me so long to notice that the numbers didn’t add up. I knew I had two aunts and three uncles, one of whom had died as a teenager. That made six children born to the union of Elizabeth and Darcy. And, indeed, the group photos always had six. Even when my mother was not among them. I must have been about ten when I realised that in some of these photographs there was an extra child. A boy. Now these were pictures of children I knew only as middle-aged men and women, and so I could not tell which of the four boys was the extra child.

 

There are many plausible reasons why there might be an extra child in a photograph.  The pictures of my father’s family often included cousins or friends or servants. And so, when I asked my mother, I was not particularly intrigued. I may have thought no more about it if she hadn’t flat-out denied what was before me in black and white. “There’s no extra child—you miscounted.”

 

“No, Mum, you aren’t in that photo, but there are still six kids.”

“One of my brothers died when he was young. It must be him.”

“No . . .  there are four boys. I’ve only ever had three uncles.”

“You must be making a mistake . . . I hope you haven’t been pulling out photos and not putting them back. Clean your room by the way . . . and can you walk to the shops and get some milk?”

 

But ten-year-olds are persistent. I brought the photo to her and counted out my uncles. “Him!” I said triumphantly, once we’d eliminated the others.  A thin boy with light eyes and ears like open cab doors. “Who is he?”

 

My mother picked up the photograph and stared at it for just a couple of beats too long. And when she spoke there was something in her voice. A hesitation cut with sadness. “Must be some cousin . . . I don’t remember who.”

 

And that was that. She would say no more. I took the photo to my father and pointed out the extra child. “Do you know who he is, Dad?”

 

Now, if my father had simply said no, I probably would have forgotten all about it. But he said, “Who does your mother say it is?”

 

“She says it was some cousin.”

“That must be right then.”

 

A ring-in cousin who visited so often he was in a number of different family photographs, but whose name was forgotten. I was underwhelmed by explanation, but that was what it was. If I’d had easy access to other family, I might have kept asking, but I was ten and I didn’t.

 

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