Once upon a time, I spent a few days at a communal farm on a wooded hilltop in southern Somerset, UK. I was there as a WWOOFer, but the weather was terribly stormy and the hosts didn’t really have much lined up for my friend and I to do. Mostly, I cut firewood in the rain, then dried out by reading Harry Potter aloud to one of the resident kids next to the woodstove in the common kitchen.
One night, all the residents were leaving to go to another community’s dinner, and for some reason or another it was impossible for my friend and I to join them. We accepted this, and bid them all adieu while curling up with books in the lounge hut (Which was a little thatched cabin! So rad!). The beams of their flashlights disappeared as they departed through the trees, and the rain pelted down even harder. Suddenly, a light appeared again, and then at the door was one of the residents: He’d had a change of heart, felt bad about ditching my friend and I, and returned to spend the evening with us.
He was old, this resident, wrinkled and wiry, like a stereotype of an eccentric British man who has decided to run away to a commune in the woods and wear gumboots every day. He’d been the one to pick us up from the local village when we arrived, and seemed more concerned with the role of host than any of the other residents. Not that they were rude, by any means, just… Distant. Distracted. Whereas this old dude was busy, but also making the effort to check in with us throughout each day.
There we were, in a tiny cabin on a rainy hilltop, and we started to share stories. The friend I was traveling with wasn’t exactly my friend really, more like a random punk I had met and decided to force friendship upon. So I didn’t know much about him, other than the fact that he was from Antigonish (anyone from Anti reading this? I know three other people from there, which means I know someone you know!). We were almost strangers, talking about our lives, and it was great.
The old dude told us about growing up in Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as he still called it. In the 1940s, his dad was involved in business there, so he spent his childhood on tea plantations. “I had a friend,” he told us, “Whose name was Michael, same as mine. We constantly got up to mischief together, and caused so much trouble!”
He paused, thought a second, then continued.
“Actually, that Michael moved to Canada later on. We haven’t stayed in touch, but I read about him once. He’s become a rather successful writer, I think. Maybe you’ve heard of him?”
I was all of 19-years-old and a know-it-all, so told him that I sincerely doubted it.
“Hmmm,” Michael said. “One of his books was made into a film, I’m told. Won some awards. I never saw it… The English Patient, was its title. Anyway, yes, it was a marvelous childhood.”
Young FG’s jaw was on the (packed dirt) floor. I mean, really? As the offspring of a bunch of teachers and a librarian, I grew up in homes where Michael Ondaatje‘s books were practically compulsory reading… And this old dude on a hillside in rural England was his childhood friend?!!
How very strange, the places we end up.
Anyway, I told Michael that the other Michael’s books were indeed beloved by many people, including my parents. “Oh, how nice,” he said, genuinely pleased. “How nice.”
I was reminded of this conversation earlier today, when I heard Michael Ondaatje on the radio reading from his latest novel, which is a fictionalized account of his own life experience in Sri Lanka as a kid. He talked about being very focused on seeking out trouble, and I smiled, remembering the night in the rain when I first heard about these adventures, from another Michael.