An escapade in Barney’s hearse – Episode 4
Barney Raymond and Rodney Jonklaas were both unique. Eccentric personalities, they endeared themselves to all who had the good fortune to know them. They were very senior to me but their exploits, while in college and later on in life, were legendary.
While at school, Rodney showed tremendous business acumen and entrepreneurship by selling to Miss Wells, who was in charge of Zoology, cockroaches and toads at 5 cents per cockroach and 25 cents per toad for practical dissection.
While toads were found in abundance in the school compound, they unfortunately met a premature end at the hands of Rodney who was alerted to them by their meeting call, commonly referred to as a croak.
Cockroaches were also plentiful and he chose the place where they all gathered together and that was the college boarding lavatories. I must mention here, that at the time our toilets were primitive. There was no water sanitation or flushes and the labourers of the Kandy Municipality had to do the needful to clear the mess every day. In the late evenings having consumed voluminous quantities, the boys made their contributions, some deliberately choosing to be off target.
Rodney’s modus operandi was to carry a polkatta and candle late at night, like how villagers used to find their way in the dark. He would then knock off the lights because in the dark cockroaches surfaced from their hiding places. Then he would catch them and put them into an empty ‘Cow and Gate’ milk tin.
I was in Junior School and it happened that my elder sister was in Rodney’s class. She once told me that Rodney used to provide the specimens for dissection and that there were funny, funny things on the cockroaches’ feelers and legs. I only subsequently got to know what these funny things were. For the record, she died of cancer while in the second year at Medical College.
Rodney later became an expert on marine life, deep sea diving and excursions into wrecks of sunken ships off the East Coast. He were also a lover of classical music and in his will bequeathed his electric organ to the Trinity Chapel, which is in use to this day.
In later life, Barney Raymond became a pioneer in the undertaking business and the first Ceylonese to become a qualified mortician. In his heyday, he was the premier undertaker in Colombo, so much so that some one composed a rhyme in his honour, which went, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; if the devil does not get you, Barney must”.
Rumour had it that one time he ran a one-man office. He took the orders and executed them, which involved embalming bodies, all by himself.
His business necessitated that someone be in his office during the nights as well. After all, people cannot choose the time of the day they die, and it was indeed very inconvenient to Barney when they chose the night. No way could he lose such business, so he was compelled to be there. To help him meet this challenge, he took his normal quota of ‘shots’ and thereafter to rest his weary head, instead of sleeping at his desk, which was uncomfortable, he chose the padded comforts of a coffin.
On the day of this incident I narrate, he had consumed a little too much. He carefully got in to a nicely padded coffin, after having put aside the lid and within minutes was fast asleep. The only barrier preventing direct access to the parlour from the road was a pair of saloon swing doors, to indicate to the public that business was on, as usual.
I must digress now, for those not acquainted with the geography of Barney Raymonds, which is still in operation today under a different management. It is next to the Kanatte cemetery from where the silhouettes of the ghostly tombstones could be eerily visible.
It so happened that night that an elderly man died in hospital. In the wee hours of the morning, the distraught wife and the daughter had hired a car and driven to Barney’s parlour to make arrangements for the funeral. They stopped the car a few yards from the parlour and made for the saloon doors. The place was in darkness, with only one bulb dangling above a desk. This was to serve the dual purpose of making it easier for him to sleep as well as to conserve electricity.
They pushed open the swing doors and entered. They looked at the chair behind the desk, but it was empty. Conscious of their gloomy surroundings, the mother hysterically shouted, “Is anybody there?”
Her voice must have registered in Barney’s sub conscious. He stuttered “Eh, eh” , put his hand on the side of the coffin to enable him to raise himself and only with his pale head visible in the eerie glow of the solitary bulb, in a low voice uttered -“Wait, wait, please don’t go”. It was almost as if Bram Stoker’s Dracula was emerging from his coffin.
It was too much for the good lady and her daughter who had just experienced the trauma of death. With shrieks they turned and fled towards the door and the safe haven of their waiting cab. Barney, not wanting to lose business, hurriedly attempted to get out of the coffin. In his haste, he stumbled over some other coffins and although he ran after them on to the street, they were off.
On another occasion, the Trinity rugby team, led by Lucky Vitharana, had just beaten Royal at Longden Place, 5-nil in a Bradby game no one expected us to win, for the Trinitians had had only a few days practice as a result of the closure of the school due to a mumps epidemic.
Clad in our college blazers, we were wending our way from Royal to the Majestic theatre to see a film and if possible have a glass of beer on our way back, when a rickety old hearse screeched to a halt alongside us. A Burgher gentleman in his mid-forties, drawled, “Hey fellows, that crest looks bl….. y familiar. That is the Trinity blazer, isn’t it? What are you doing here?”
Obviously he had not been aware that the Bradby was played that evening. In unison we replied, “We came for the Bradby, Sir!” “What happened?” he asked us. Again in unison we replied, “We won, Sir!”He ejaculated, “Jolly good show, fellows. Jump in,” and opened the side door of the hearse. Lucky and two others jumped into the front seat and the rest of us, heaven knows how, squeezed in behind.
The floor of the hearse was strewn with fallen flowers and ferns from wreaths and the aroma of formalin, varnish and eau de-cologne permeated the air. With great difficulty Roland Aluvihare, Udeni Molligoda, Eshin Fernando and I along with others was able to squeeze in after second row monsters, Anton Nonis, Neil de Zoysa and prop Douglas Lamb, got in.
He drove us to the BRC and made us dance the baila, with a bottle of beer thrown in for good measure, after having first chased cattle on the BRC grounds, in his hearse. We all had a good time and he then drove us back to Royal. As we walked past our Master and Coach, Mr. Harry Hardy he was fast asleep or pretended to be so.
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Published 7 years ago