When the third trip of the day got delayed due to the extra batch of spanchi the owner wanted them to sell, he thought something like this would happen. Who would buy cake and spanchi at this time of the day? It was almost seven at night.
“Yathapi mule anupaddave dalhe
chinnopi rukkho punareva ruhati
evampi tanhanusaye anuhate
nibbattati dukkhamidam punappunam”
he muttered slowly, as the Everest Bakery lorry slowly turned to Shradda Mawatha and started to play the tune of It’s a Small World, stale now, having played over and over again for too long. The lorry drove past the paper factory, four houses to the right, three houses to the left, a Meheni Aramaya and one more house to the left when he saw a girl comingrunning, with a small light which appeared to be coming from a mobile phone. He rang the bell, signaling the driver to stop. ‘Ha!’ she panted aloud as she kept her hands on her hips and bent down. She had run the small distance too fast. She took a deep breath and looked up. Although only her white mask was clearly visible in the dark, there was something exceptional in her eyes.
‘Cake? Spanchi?’ he asked.
‘Spanchi spanchi’ she said delightedly, and very confidently. Her eyes got brighter as she eyed the packs of spanchi stacked up on the metal shelf. In a baggy t-shirt, with her short hair let loose she looked playful and young. She pulled out and wore the spectacles she had hung on the neckline of the t-shirt and counted the notes to pay, once he told her the spanchi pack was one hundred and fifty rupees. She sounded like a teacher teaching a little child how to count, as she said aloud
“hundred, twenty, twenty, ten” and kept the notes on the metal tray nearby. When he rang the bell again, the driver started driving forward and he looked at her running back with her little light, with the spanchi pack clutched to her chest. He smiled under his mask.
In two days, when the lorry turned to Shradda Mawatha around five o’clock, they made more sales. Someone from the paper factory bought three kilos of cake and he wondered whether they had people working in the factory when the government had declared a lockdown. Is paper an essential item? He was wondering whether they could run a country without paper when he saw the girl who came running for spanchi that day standing by the side of the road. She was in a call, with wires coming out of her ears. This time she was in a yellow batik dress. He thought she looked very pretty. She looked just the way Nelum looked in her yellow floral cheeththa dress, last New Year. However, Nelum had her curly hair plaited, and her dress was much longer and had boorichchi sleeves, but there was something similar in them. The girl smiled. It was the smile. They both smiled from the eyes, he thought. He felt a tenderness in his heart. She pointed towards the spanchi packs and kept a hundred rupee note and a fifty rupee note on the metal tray, still talking on the phone using both Sinhala and English in the same sentence. He wished she said the amounts of the notes aloud like a teacher, like the last time, but her call seemed more interesting. As he handed her the spanchi pack,
he noticed a wedding ring on her left hand and he felt his heart being pinched. That day, until the lorry reached the bakery around nine o’clock at night, the only thing he could think about, was that day, the most unforgettable day in his life.
According to his memory, it was about three in the afternoon when his wife and daughter came weeping to the boutique where he was working, yelling his granddaughter was nowhere to be found. Their beautiful little girl. His legs felt numb but he ran towards Ruwanweli Seya as fast as he could. Although he ran yelling, along the long line of flower shops, to Sriya Latha’s flower shop at the
corner, where his granddaughter gave a hand, something within him whispered she was really gone. Although he shouted at Sriya Latha for not being responsible, despite her yelling back saying a girl of twenty two who helped her out at the flower shop was not her responsibility, he always knew this would happen one day. The words of Gnanissara hamuduruwo who warned him about her marriage, the day she attained age, resonated in his mind. He then ran towards the lake though he knew she never went to the lake to pluck flowers, except for that one time when the mudalali of the boutique where he worked had seen her by the lake with a well-dressed man who had come in a black car. That was the day he knew misery was two steps away. His anger made his eyes look like crimson charcoal burning the hearth. ‘
Aney seeya…’ she cried. She said he loved her, and she loved him back. She said he made her happy. He was shocked to hear his meek little girl saying a word as dangerous as love out loud. He didn’t have dinner that night. And he didn’t speak to her until the New Year which came a week later. A million times, he lovingly advised her, warned her, told her stories of girls who sold flowers to the wrong people. She listened without a hmm sound, the way she listened to his stories about Andare, when she was a little girl. And he thought she understood. He sat on the bank of the lake and cried until the sun went down. It was his little girl, with whom he made koompittu on sand, who played teacher wrapped in a cheeththaya and made him write numbers on sand, whom he took to Ruwanweli Seya and Sri Maha Bodhiya on Poya Days to show all the people who came from around the country, with whom he counted the huge shining vehicles in the car park that had the board VIP, for whom he bought small bead necklaces and colourful threads from the fancy item carts near the flower shops because unlike the other little girls in the village, she had no father to buy them for her. They took walks around the lake and every time he plucked a white lotus for her, he thought she was more beautiful than the lotus, despite her name Nelum. But now, she was gone. And he was not sure he would ever see her again. It was not the same home without his little girl in it. So when his mudalali told him about his friend’s bakery in Colombo, he did not mind taking the job. It had nearly been one year and he had almost forgotten about his life in Anuradhapura, except for the few times in the beginning when one or two white lotus flowers in the small pond in the bakery reminded him of her. Memories of that day stayed drowned at the bottom of the lake, until the girl who bought spanchi stirred them up. He pictured girl who bought spanchi. He pictured those eyes that smiled above the mask. And he fell asleep.
The next morning, he felt glad he took the job at the bakery, apart from being able to send his wife and daughter good money, now he sensed another reason which he did not quite understand. The fact that the next day’s route went through Shradda Mawatha made him happy. He eagerly waited for the day to pass. He even ironed the clothes he would wear the next day, that night.
As they set out to sell cake and spanchi the next day, a team of government officials stopped the lorry to inspect it for hygienic retail practices during the time of a pandemic. So it was about a half past six in the evening when the lorry took the turn to Shradda Mawatha. When nobody from the paper factory bought cake, and when only one out of the four houses to the right and none from the three houses to the left bought cake, despite how loud the lorry played It’s a Small World, he wondered whether the girl who loved spanchi had decided not to have spanchi that day. So he put his head out even before the face of the lorry drove past the first coconut tree in their land. She was not there by the side of the road waiting for spanchi. He looked at her house and saw that the main door was closed. He sat down. He sighed and looked at the long tray of coconut cake nobody buys, it felt heavy, like his heart. As a wind blew into the lorry gently shaking the oil paper placed over the butter cake, he felt Anuradhapura wind was more comforting. He was wondering whether Anuradhapura sun was brighter too, when the lorry hit a brake and suddenly stopped. And the girl who loved spanchi suddenly appeared and started panting loudly. He was so delighted that he stood up unconsciously, and rushed to the stack of spanchi packs. She was in a t-shirt and a pair of shorts and she had soap bubbles all over her. Her hands were completely wet, even her mask, and she gave him the money with two fingers, scared she would get the notes wet. She seemed to be in a very happy mood. But he was sure he was happier, that day. She clutched the spanchi pack to her chest with both hands and ran away. He wondered whether there were snakes in that area at this time of the evening.
Once the lorry started moving forward, he put his head out. He saw the girl who loved spanchi running to a man and showing him the spanchi pack and jumping up and down. Then she kept the spanchi pack on the white bench nearby, put her hands inside the water bucket and created a lot of soap bubbles. She then blew them towards the man who was holding a water hose over a dark blue car. He sprayed water on the girl who loved spanchi and she screamed, laughing aloud. He then gave her a kiss on the cheek and she gave him a kiss back. The man seemed to love the girl who loved spanchi. She seemed to love him too. They seemed to be very happy. He felt himself smiling, under the mask. He stared at them until they disappeared into a dot and the lorry took a turn to the next road, Vimukthi Mawatha.
He went to the nearby temple the next day, after work. He always found temples, places that helped him think. He did not utter any gatha, instead, he sat under the bo tree and closed his eyes. He was glad the temple was silent and had a very few worshipers, unlike the ones in Anuradhapura. He poured water to the Bodhiya and took an ekle broom to sweep the sand. He didn’t draw a pattern on the sand with the ekle broom, the way he usually did. Instead, he allowed the sand to remain how it was and picked up the fallen leaves with the pointed ekles in the ekle broom. In the end, he felt the lightness of a well swept sand crystal in his heart.
The next day, in his new striped shirt, he peeped out of the lorry as they turned to the Shradda Mawatha. And he saw her, the girl who loved spanchi, in a white cotton top with boorichchi sleeves worn over a long pair of elephant pants. She smiled with her eyes and jumped towards the back of the lorry even before the lorry stopped. She said “hundred, fifty” aloud and kept the notes on the metal tray. He already had her spanchi pack in his hand this time. And along with it, he had a beautiful white lotus, plucked from the small pond in the bakery. He gave her both and her eyes gleamed like Anuradhapura sun. Then she lowered her mask and said “aney seeya…thank you”. He felt she was more beautiful than the lotus. And a tear rolled down his cheek. The lorry started moving forward.
Clutching both the spanchi pack and the white lotus to her chest, the girl who loved spanchi stood, smiling with her eyes, watching the lorry, as it turned to Vimukthi Mawatha at the end of the street
Written by Mandulee Mendis
Illustration by DRG