This is a story in flashback. So, please bear with me as I do the introductions and our heroine recounts the past that resurfaced with a certain incident.
Our heroine is stepping graciously to her middle age, being just past six and thirty years. Husband-free, child-free and trouble-free. Her eyes had smile-lines and soft crinkles around them when she smiled. But an objective onlooker would say, her eyes, nose, mouth, taken singly, were commonplace in character and even plain. But even our onlooker would agree that taken altogether, her face was radiant, kind, dependable and honest, if there ever was such a face.
But on this eventful day, she was thrown off-guard, and the sudden shock of it sent her reminiscing. For one imagines better with the albeit slight aid offered by details, I will tell you that she was clad in a white sari with a gold flower petal trimming, and was occupying a rickety chair at the Colombo District Court- Courtroom Number 7. I’m afraid I must not intrude on her story any further than this, so here I let our heroine take over the reins of this telling.
It was stifling, and the courtroom was as usual, packed to the brim. I should’ve expected this, but still it all seemed surreal and strange, almost novel, as if this was my first case. My eyes searched for my client at the back of the room, and found her seated in the row of seats there, wedged between two burly men. She caught my eye and smiled.
Why do I have to be so tense like this?
I sat there clutching my files, expecting the inevitable.
Him. And in he came, carving his way through the teeming crowd. Like a crow flapping its ugly dark wings, his cloak billowing behind him. He quickly scuttled to the only seat that was free, beating Mr. Karunaratne, who was desperately eyeing it and inching towards it against the crowd.
I stifled a smirk.
He deposited the bundle of books he was carrying on the table, and his junior counsel right beside his chair. Finally, he was satisfied with the arrangement of his properties and looked around, scanning the room with a very sombre expression of tight- pressed lips and furrowed brows; a look he often wore when he was deeply in thought.
Suddenly he glanced to his far left, saw me and stopped his enterprise of scrutiny.
Or, he just stopped everything.
I think he even stopped breathing for a while.
I say this, because he looked like a fish out of water at that moment, with his lips slightly parted and drained of colour. But as he always does, he collected himself in a flash and reassumed his stiff upper lip, so well and so quickly that if I didn’t know him better, I should’ve thought his earlier expression a figment of my imagination.
Then he half-raised his right hand in the air, in acknowledgment of me. I gave the slightest possible nod and looked away. I was going through my argument with my notes once more, when I heard the cat-like, quick and stealthy sound of his footsteps. I knew then, that I’ll have to string together a few words and feign conversation.
I looked up to see him once again carving his way through the crowds. He reached me, and just stood there looking down at me- for once, not on me.
I found, however, that the look of surprise in his eyes aggravated when he looked at the Case Number written in large black letters on the file in my hand. It was then that I realised that he must’ve not been updated about the change of Counsel representing the Plaintiff- that is my client, Anula.
He confirmed my assumption by muttering in a quiet voice, “I didn’t know that you’ll be here”, and sounded almost like speaking more to himself than to me.
“Yes, there was a change because Ms. Himali fell ill”, I managed an icy smile.
“Oh, is she okay?” followed his next question.
I wanted to blurt out, “Do you care?”
But I calmed my internal voice down, remembering how during such previous outbursts I was labelled ‘immature’ by this very man.
“Yes, it’s just the flu”, I spat.
I wanted him gone. Clearly. But I had forgotten his aversion to being told or even signalled what to do.
He mumbled a, “Is that so…” and stared at me, my files, my chair and my handbag a few seconds more, turned on his heel, reassumed his seat and began whispering to his junior.
The Judge entered the Court room Number 7, dedicated to divorce matters, right as the clock read 10 a.m. All rose and then settled, heaving a collective sigh. I waited as the listed cases were called one by one, listening carefully for my number, rose when it was called and stated that it is up for argument today. I was informed that it’ll be taken up in a while. The calling continued and I felt a gaze on me, only to look up and find him staring, yet again. It frustrated me so much, that I felt like flying there and slapping it out of him. But, as always, I didn’t.
Finally the time came and I rose and made my submission as to why my client Anula should be granted the divorce that she pleads on the basis of ‘malicious desertion’- the only opening in Sri Lanka’s antiquated divorce system, to accommodate a piss-drunk, abusive husband.
He was contesting the divorce on behalf of Anula’s husband- “how apt”, I had thought, when my client told me that her husband was closely related to this big shot lawyer, who had agreed to represent him. That settled my curiosity as to why he would deign to argue a divorce case at a lower Court.
I do not know if it was the novelty of the task, or the unfamiliar court, but all I had heard of his ingenuity and legal acumen as a Counsel, appeared utter fibs as the arguments progressed. He looked dishevelled, distraught, confused and repetitive.
At the end of all this, I waited with baited breath until the Judge pronounced the Decree Absolute granting the divorce. I was overcome with happiness and a sense of guilt, as I felt that it was less because of Anula’s half-smiling, half-confused face and more because of his sour one.
Anula thanked me and ran off to collect her little girl from Montessori, without one look at her ex-husband. Just as I was walking out of the Court’s complex, avoiding puddles and trees spewing retained raindrops, he caught up with me. His junior was no longer at his heel, probably banished to the library for more thorough research, I imagined with a flourish.
I caught wafts of his cologne and the glint of his cuff-links, and suddenly felt self-conscious of the blot of blue ink on my sari. I covered it up with my files. He walked with me for some time in silence, and when we came to the intersection he asked quietly, “would you like to talk over a cup of tea?”
He has always been quite a persistent man, who’d get his way, one way or another (which is why his performance today at the Court surprised me). I was thinking of heading towards the canteen anyway to meet a colleague, and with the hope of shirking him off once there, I agreed.
We sat down.
My colleague was nowhere to be seen.
I texted her quickly asking her to meet me there ASAP. I, of course, had to shield my phone from his prying eyes. I did not like this feeling, it was as if I was thrust back in to my University life again.
“You look well”, he began.
Has he hit his head somewhere? That would explain his abysmal performance as well as this compliment and the shifty nature. But I couldn’t muse for too long and had to think of a reply.
“You too”, and I was not lying. He looked…well…loaded.
He wasted no time, “married?”
“No, just divorced”, I smiled.
I savoured the look of shock on his face while it lasted, before it sank in and he smiled feebly.
“No, but really, are you? Any kids?” he kept at it.
If I had just met him, I’d be embarrassed by questions of such personal nature that he threw at me. But we weren’t strangers, yet we weren’t friends either. As undefined as our connection may be, I still felt they were too personal, but I wasn’t surprised. I decided to go with the truth because he’d find out the truth anyway.
“No and no”.
He fell silent, with that queer expression of tight-pressed lips and furrowed brows.
I kept checking my phone and fussing with my teacup. My colleague finally sent a message, only to say that she was held up in Court and asking me to return to the Chambers without her. Sigh. Now what?
I have to say though, looking at his stony face I wondered why he wanted to have tea. Was it just so that he could ask me if I’m married? But that was just ridiculous. I heard my internal voice raising alarm and my mind flashing visions from the past before my eyes.
I got up, a bit too abrupt. To compensate for it, I flashed a friendly smile, pointed to my phone and said that I’ve to meet a client at the Chamber in a while, so that it’s time I left. I bade goodbye to his thoughtful face and flew back to the Chamber, apprehensive that he might be following me. The voice inside me gave a snort at the thought, and I lowered my eyes in shame and hailed a taxi.
On the way, I thought that if I ever had to pick a skill I’ve excelled at, it would be running away from things, people and situations. I’ve indeed mastered it to an art form. I opened the door and seated myself at my cosy chair in the empty Chamber. No one has returned from the morning’s tasks. My eyes fixed on the University of Colombo keychain hanging from a cupboard and past scenes started flashing before my eyes again.
I had entered the University to study Law with such lofty ideals of love growing in my bosom, even after having suffered a brutal heartbreak just before I got my acceptance letter to the Colombo University. But I still wanted to believe in it, unaware of its omnipresent central tenets- the laws of love. They didn’t teach that as part of the course work, but by the end of the four years, I was thoroughly educated on it.
The English medium class at Uni in truth was a microcosm of the society. Students of all backgrounds, of varying wealth, of all locations and of diverging ideals, all blending into one. Except, some people chose not to blend, they were too good to blend and to lower the quality of what they were made of.
I guess, we were after all pro-blending because we had nothing of great value to lose by so doing.
He chose not to blend too. He preferred the company of girls made of the same valuable substance as he was. His sweetheart was a famous socialite’s daughter.
But I do not know why, I felt, at least at times that there was a little bit of us in him as well, due to which he could not help but blend. For instance, when he bought achcharu (pickles) and murukku (bites) from me at the food fiesta we organized to raise funds for social service projects, or when he bought flower plants from me to help the environmental law campaign, or when he would help my friends out when they were stuck during a debate, or when he even consented to be part of the play we put up to celebrate Women’s Day. I smiled over all these memories.
But it was always just that. There was never enough evidence.
Close, but not close enough.
I’d catch him, seated in the corner of the valuables in the class, staring at my face. Sometimes he’d look away; sometimes he’d meet my eye. I’ve caught him doing so, many times in the four years. He’d brush past me, would come and compliment a girl standing close to me and leave. I was so ashamed, of the fantasy I was building up in my mind, upon the shaky foundation of nothing but longing gazes and awkward encounters. I was ashamed that I enjoyed his attention in those brief moments, knowing he loved another of his kind, and that I was but a weird spectacle.
Years and years went by in University. There were messages, never friendly, just witticisms back and forth; we’d have petty disagreements, and I’d call him selfish and he’d call me immature. That was it. Then it was the final picture day. I heard him call my name, he wanted all of us for a class picture, his eyes lingering on me again. We left University. We took oaths as Attorneys-at-Law, but that was a good 10, 11 years ago. Then there was silence, until today, until his lingering eyes found me again.
This was my shame. And I bore it badly, so I buried it. Now more resolutely than ever, I am determined I’d never think of him ever again. His lofty, self-serving, condescending self can decompose on the shelves of the memory cupboard.
It was going well, until I met him again, the following week.
It had started to rain out of the blue, and he was carrying a big black umbrella over himself and a petite, elegant woman. I only saw this after I had absent-mindedly collided with them, trying to get to a shelter before my sari was completely drenched. I pretended not to see them and covered my head with my pallu in a weak attempt to hide myself.
I saw him guiding the woman to a champagne-coloured Jaguar parked a little away, and then getting in himself. I was standing in the sheltered portico of the Court building, wishing the rain would stop when the car glided past me in smooth effortlessness. As it took a right turn, I thought I saw through the window, a gold glimmer on his right hand that was resting on the steering wheel. Looking up, I saw that his head was turned sideways, his eyes gazing into mine. I think I imagined the regret in them too.
Written by Samya Senaratne
Illustrations by DRG