The room was a small box full of colour.
As they entered, Mohamed was standing behind the counter cutting cloth. Lalani liked the way he cut without cutting, holding the scissor, and running the cloth against it, so that the pieces of silk fell smoothly to either side.
Lalani shook her head. Hasitha was half hiding behind her. She pulled her forward.
She upended the black bag on the counter. The glittering material slid out. From darkness to light.
Mohamed’s eyebrows rose.
‘A dress,’ Lalani said. Her hands sketched the air.
He still looked surprised. Usually Hasitha’s dresses were functional – good material, sewn to last. Adequate. Like the one she was wearing that day – a yellow cotton print, a little faded now after much washing – which would last her several months until she grew taller.
The cloth had come to Lalani unexpectedly, a gift from a relative visiting from abroad. It was not something she would have bought herself. When her aunt gave her the package she had peered inside the ugly white plastic bag expecting a sensible sari or jacket material, getting ready to speak the usual phrases: oh thank you, so useful, just what I needed. And this had slid out. A dark blue-green material, with a faint sheen that changed with the light. Perfect for a party dress. A dress with intricate embroidery and a flared skirt that would shimmer in the light. She had never had such a dress herself. It was not what Hasitha needed – she didn’t need a party dress – but faced with desire, need didn’t enter into it at all.
Lalani had run her fingers over the material and put it away carefully in her almirah. I will keep it, she thought, for a good occasion. And one day she caught a glimpse of it as she opened the almirah door to get her purse – the gas tank had to be replaced – and she wondered what good occasion she was waiting for.
‘Two thousand rupees.’
Lalani flinched. ‘Mohamed, how long have I been coming to you? Every time it’s more expensive.’
‘What to do miss, cost of everything is going up.’
She pouted but reached inside her handbag. The green notes rustled, the notes felt crisp and wonderful in her hands. One thousand, two thousand. ‘I can’t spend that much.’
Mohamed pointed silently to the notes.
‘That’s the money to pay our bills, it’s not for clothes.’
Mohamed shrugged. ‘Good things are worth paying for.’
She stared at him and then laughed. ‘Will you tell my husband that? I’m one of your oldest customers. Discount?’
‘The embroidery costs a lot. If you make the pattern simpler, I can reduce.’
‘Does she need a very elaborate dress?’
‘Why do you sound like my husband?’ She took the notes out and pushed them quickly across to him, banishing the ghost of the Samath before he could intrude on this small space of colour and beauty. ‘There. Make sure it’s beautiful.’
She watched as the notes quickly disappeared into the metal cashbox. Mohamed was expensive but he could do magical things with a piece of cloth. Taking Hasitha’s hand, she turned to go.
‘Your umbrella.’ Mohamed pointed to the umbrella which she had left on the counter. Nodding a thanks, she took it and stepped with Hasitha in to the heat outside. The day seemed brighter, different from the usual routine of running errands and buying groceries and she walked more briskly than usual. Perhaps sensing her mood, Hasitha gave a little skip as they walked, not querulous at being outside as she sometimes was. Lalani reached inside her purse, five hundred rupees left. She wouldn’t be able to pay bills with that, damn, but what was the point of hoarding money all the time; what was the point of living like that? The dress danced across her mind, its green flared skirt swirling, clasping a narrow waist.
They were passing the ice cream place, the one with special imported ice cream that melted in your mouth. Every day Hasitha lingered here; every time Samath refused. Hasitha was staring through the glass counter at the exotically labelled ice creams. Pistachio. Hazelnut. Avocado. Lalani was seized by recklessness: if it was going to be a different day, let it be a properly different day.
‘What do you want?’
Hasitha stared. Then she pointed to the rich brown hazelnut. Lalani smiled. She gave the last five hundred note to the girl behind the counter. The girl handed her the two ice cream cones and slid a small sticker across the counter to Hasitha. ‘For you.’
It was a Spiderman sticker, blue and red and glittering in the sun. Hasitha took it reverentially. Mother and daughter stood together eating ice cream. Hasitha ate slowly, holding the cone in both hands. She was a careful child, an odd quality in a ten-year-old.
She looked up, licking the cone.
‘We don’t tell your father about the new dress, okay?’
Hasitha stared. Ice cream ran down her chin.
Hasitha waited while Lalani took out a tissue and carefully wiped the ice cream away from her chin. Then she continued eating. She didn’t look at her mother.
Hasitha was a child. But she had to learn what not to say. Lalani’s hands went to her purse. She looked at her daughter. She could see the dress on her, the glitter against her skin. Hasitha never asked for new things. When Hasitha is older, she thought, when she is older and we can talk about these things, it will be easier.
Samath didn’t get home until late evening. Lalani wasn’t sure whether she was glad about that or not. She was in the pantry cutting onions for the curry she was making. Through the door she could see Hasitha seated at the dining table. She had an exercise book open and wrote laboriously, her forehead creased in concentration. After a few minutes she looked up and slid off the chair.
‘Hasitha, where are you going – have you finished the page?’
She shook her head. Her pigtails flew.
‘I’m sleepy. What time will thatha come?’
He came as Lalani was taking the chicken off the fire. She heard the sound of the door opening, the sound of Hasitha’s chair being pushed back and her slippers on the tiled floor. She started spooning the chicken curry into the dish. There was the sound of laughter. Lalani stayed in the pantry. He came in and poured a glass of water from the guruleththuva. The curry smell filled the kitchen. He sniffed.
She nodded. He picked up his bag and went to the room to change. In the room he would remove his handkerchief from his pocket, take off his watch and his tie and then go to wash his face. Always in that order. She thought perhaps that it would help if something changed. Even if it was only that he took off his tie before his handkerchief.
After he washed his face, he would open his drawer where he kept money – the one that was usually locked – and put his wallet away. Sometimes he would count the notes. Always counting things. He was an accountant, yes, but was that a reason to count things at home? How many kilos of rice bought this week. How many tomatoes. How many Bombay onions. How many rupee notes in the drawer.
There were faint sounds from the room. The sound of his slippers dragging (that meant he had changed from his office shoes). The sound of a drawer opening. He came out of the room and went to the dining room, newspaper in hand.
She let out a sigh. He was seated at the table opening the newspaper. Perhaps he hadn’t counted the notes today. She would put the money back soon. Just as soon as her mother gave her that loan. She turned back to the food. If he didn’t count everything, she wouldn’t have to worry like this.
Hasitha didn’t want murunga. She sat in her chair, and considered the strips. She held the green strips with one hand and peeled the flesh away with a finger, holding the edible part with a finger.
‘Eat properly,’ Lalani said automatically.
Samath had left some of his files on the table. She moved the files as she prepared to sit.
‘There’s no room otherwise, no.’
He looked irritable. ‘All right, but don’t lose anything. Just keep it there.’
‘When do I lose things?’ Lalani asked. But there was no one really to answer the question. Hasitha was preoccupied with the murunga and Samath was half glancing at the newspaper.
‘Work finished late today?’
Samath had a new boss. That much Lalani knew. She wondered whether it was the new boss that put the tetchy look on his face but decided not to ask.
She sat down and he pushed the newspaper away.
‘Did you remember to pay the bills today?’ His question came suddenly.
‘I didn’t have time. I had to take Hasitha for her class in the morning.’
‘Did you buy her exercise books too?’
‘No, no time.’
He looked up.
‘Why – what else did you do?’
Lalani spoke before Hasitha could reply
‘We walked back after Hasitha’s class.’
‘We got ice cream,’ Hasitha said. She placed the murunga back on the plate.
Samath looked surprised. He was not a man who would ever randomly stop for ice cream in the middle of the day.
‘Wait,’ Hasitha said. She scrambled off her chair and ran to her room. She came back a moment later and pushed something across the table to her father. ‘See, I got this.’
He touched it with his finger. It was the sticker. Spiderman looked up at him in bright red and blue.
‘The girl at the ice cream place gave it to me.’
He smiled. It was strange how he loved the child. ‘Good, good,’ he said. He didn’t talk very much to children. Maybe that was why Hasitha was always happy when he noticed her. She smiled now and sat down, digging her elbows into the table.
‘Will you be late tomorrow as well?’
‘The ice cream place is not on the way back from the class?’
Lalani ran a finger in a circle around her plate.
‘We walked a little way around. I felt like a walk.’
Lalani never walked in the midday sun if she could help it. His eyebrows rose.
‘There was a lot of traffic around there. So I asked the three wheeler to go around the other way. And it was so hot. So I felt like stopping.’
She was talking too much.
‘So you could have paid the bills at the same time also, no?’
She pushed forward one of the dishes. ‘Tofu. I bought this yesterday for the first time. Try.’
He looked but didn’t take the dish.
‘Did you like the ice cream?’
Hasitha raised her head at her father’s question and nodded gravely.
Lalani could sense another question coming. Hasitha was always so slow when eating. Why was she so slow?
‘Hasitha wash your hands.’
‘But I haven’t finished yet.’
‘You have school tomorrow.’
‘Let her eat. Did you spend a long time at the ice cream place?’
‘We didn’t go in.’ Hasitha said. ‘We stood on the road and ate. I had ice cream on my chin. But amma wiped it’
‘Wasn’t it hot?’
‘We stood in the shade. And amma had the umbrella – she almost forgot it in the shop but the uncle told us—’
‘Hasitha go and wash your hands.’
Hasitha looked from her father to Lalani. She pushed her chair back from the table and ran to the kitchen. Lalani felt the questions coming. What shop. Where did you go. A dress. For her? But she has dresses! Two thousand rupees?!
She closed her eyes. She could see it – Hasitha in her new dress. The blue-green material. She knew the design. A square neckline, pinched in waist and full flared skirt. A full flare. Not the usual skirt. Not the home sewn cotton dresses that she always wore. She could see the dress and she imagine the look on Hasitha’s face when she wore it. For a moment she imagined herself telling Samath this. Then she opened her eyes.
Just before going to sleep, she looked into Hasitha’s room. The light was off. She could just see the shape of Hasitha’s head against the pillow. She was about to leave when there was a slight movement.
She went into the room and sat on the edge of the bed. She had untied the pigtails and combed out her hair before she went to bed. Now the curtain of hair lay spread across the pillow.
‘Hasitha, are you asleep?’
He will forget, Lalani wanted to say. It will take time but he will forget.
Silence. The head moved away from her towards the wall.
She did not want questions; not now, at the end of the day, with night filling the small house, with Samath still annoyed, with things to be done early the next morning. She got up abruptly. At the door she hesitated, then closed the door behind her.
When Hasitha is older, she thought, when she is older and we can talk about these things, it will be easier.
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