12th July 1998
3 of Fragments, Manel Abhayaratne's thrilling serial
Chitra laughed with that high gurgling sound she made, but she was happy. Neela was glad she had brought her to the Cinema. The theatre was not that crowded, there was a harmless spectacled young man seated next to Chitra and in the seat in front an old couple were enjoying the film with as much laughter as Chitra's. At the interval she asked "Do you want to go to the toilet?" Chitra shook her head. Neela said, "Shall I go and get you an icecream before the lights go off," Chitra nodded.
The young man watched Neela leave and leaned forward and said, "There was an accident near your flat, did you see it?" The girl looked at him surprised. He looked a harmless young man with his thick spectacles and his thin fingers which seemed to be playing a game of their own. She looked at his hands fascinated at the fingers twisting to form rings. He asked her again willing her to look up at him. "Did you see it, that accident last night?"
She nodded. "Did you see the car?" his voice was urgent and she looked at the man puzzled. She seemed to remember the sound of his voice. Where had she heard it? She wanted to nod her head but she saw again vividly the accident, the blood and then remembered the knocking on the door and she was frightened. "Did you see it?" asked the man again. She shook her head and tried to get up to go on to the other seat. The man held her hand. "Speak girl can't you talk?"
Her eyes wide, Chitra gazed at the man. He moved closer to her. She shrank into her chair as he moved. In desperation she hit her feet against the seat opposite. "Did you see the car?" the man's face was coming closer to her. She closed her eyes tight and desperately hit the chair in front.
The lights were dim and the old man turned and said angrily, "What a nuisance you are child" and then he saw the man bending over the girl "Eh, what are you trying to do?" The young man quickly moved away. "I sure should report you to the Police. Yes, I think so trying to molest a little girl. I know your kind," he continued, glaring at the man.
Neela hurried back with the icecream. The lights dimmed. She said, "I am sorry Chitra there was such a queue for the icecream that's why I got late." Chitra crouched in her seat her blurred eyes unable to see the film. "Why are you crying?" Neela asked in surprise and she wondered whether the girl was going through another symptomatic breakdown or whatever term the docter had used.
Before the film was over, the young man had left the hall.
Nihal's head was paining but he had to see the girl. It was essential he had to be sure. He did not know what he would do afterwards, but it was necessary. His head ached so much and the cap he had pulled over his bandage was a tight band cutting into the stitches. It took him a long time to reach the flats. It was awful to drive, and the headlights of oncoming cars blinded him. It was lucky there was no police on the roads he thought or else his erratic driving would have made many suspect that he was a drunk.
Neela was sitting on the chair gazing vacantly at the book she held in her hands. She was desperately worried. She had asked Chitra what had happened, but the child had been too upset to write anything more than that a man had tried to drag her. Neela wondered whether the outline of growing womanliness in Chitra's young body could have been the cause of the man's action or was it something else? She had tried to question her when they came into the flat, but Chitra had clamped her lips tight together and continued shaking her head. When she was in such a mood it was no point trying to ask her anything, it was best to ignore her and let her mood pass. Neela was irritated, but she knew if she shouted at her it would be useless. She sighed at the constraints that were now appearing in their relationship, it was something new.
Could she keep her emotions under control all the time, because Chitra was now a child without a voice? Was it possible to live without the normal angers and expressed irritations? Neela was very worried. Perhaps Anil has been correct when he had said "It's not possible to live a normal family life with Chitra. It's best she go to a institution". But Neela shook her head. How could she send Chitra anywhere when she herself had failed her so badly.
Neela scarcely heard Nihal's feeble knocking on the door. When Nihal repeated knocking, persistently she wondered who it was. Perhaps if she opened the door and found out she could lay Chitra's fears at rest. It would most probably be the harmless neighbour from downstairs or some one from the office.
She opened the door. "May I come in," said a man she had never seen before though he seemed vaguely familiar. She wanted to close the door but he held on to the edge of it and said, "I am Nihal Jayaratne an investigators I've a card, see."
He dug into his shirt pocket and held out a card. She did not take it, instead she remembered suddenly his face and his name and said, "But you are dead." "I am no ghost miss," his speech was blurred. "I'm in terrible pain but it's necessary that I must speak to you. May I come in?"
He looked terrible she thought, his face streaked with raw wounds and the cap pulled tight over his head. She glanced at the wall clock in the hall and said, "It's late." "I know but it's urgent. I can show you my investigator's card please."
She wondered for a second whether she could close the door on him and then a smile touched her lips, it was only in novels that one could close the door on a man holding on to it. Nihal saw the faint smile and moved into the hall closing the door behind him. He sat down heavily on the low chair. She looked at him puzzled and when he pulled off the cap she saw the blood stained bandage. She remembered his face from Chitra's drawing and wondered whether he was really alive or was he some figment of her tired imagination.
She looked at him and said, "But you were reported to be dead." "I am very much alive at the moment though I guess in a day or two I might be dead that's what the doctor says. In fact," he continued "I would have been dead except that a child, a beautiful girl banged on the window and pointed at the killer, but my friend is dead. It was too late to save him But I...."
Neela frowned. Had he escaped from hospital, was his mind deranged by the accident.
He saw the puzzlement in her eyes, so much like her daughter's. He said slowly, "Look I am really sick but it's necessary I speak to your daughter. She saw the accident. It was she who distracted me, that's why I am alive yet. She would remember the car. She," he stopped "I don't even know your name." "I am Neela Wirasinghe," she said mechanically her mind unable to cope with this new situation.
Nihal's head was hurting him. "Can I have some water, the doctor gave me some tablets, pain killers. I think with this wretched pain I can't even think clearly". She brought him some water and said, "why didn't you stay in hospital? The newspapers and the radio said you were dead."
Was the woman a fool he wondered, but she did not look stupid and then he thought he really could not blame her confusion. The established media had said he was dead. Naturally she was confused. He smiled and Neela again remembered Chitra's drawing of the man with the kind smile as she had called him. "Please believe me it's difficult to explain and I don't wonder that you think I am crazy but it's necessary that people think me dead. I am not in a fit condition to be alert enough and we are up against people trained to kill. Michael had no chance and if they could kill for the very little he knew, how much more would they search for me if they know I am yet alive and trying to get at the truth - the power behind all this violence."
She looked tired and he wondered vaguely, where her husband was. Should he ask her, perhaps he should, after all he had to know before he could trust her. "Are you," he stopped, obviously she was married. It was all wrong to bother his muddled head, he should have first asked her whether the child was hers but then the old man in the flat below had said that only a woman and a child lived in the flat. "Well," he started again "is your husband at home." "I am....." she stopped, how could she say divorced or separated it did not seem right. She said, "My husband is not here." That was true in a sense she thought. "You know, if I can only speak to your little daughter for a few minutes I'd be able to get some idea of the car, perhaps of the driver."
She did not reply. He looked at Neela sharply and then said, "I don't know whether it's right to tell you all this, but we heard that a man was funding the terrorists. We were to get more information from a person who was to meet us here, when the accident took place. It was no accident, it was murder and please you must understand how important it is to us, to you, the country to find out who is behind all this. Can't I speak to your daughter for just a minute?"
Wearily he put his hand on his throbbing head. He felt the nausea rising up in his throat and closed his eyes. Neela moved restlessly. "The child is asleep - tomorrow morning perhaps," she said reluctantly. He opened his eyes and looked at her dazed for awhile and then he said awkwardly, reluctant to leave the safety of the flat. "I think you are right it is too late now. I didn't think when I came - it's my beastly head. I've to wait till morning to contact a friend of mine. The less people know I am alive the greater the chance to find out, get more facts perhaps. I'll go to the car now."
"Where will you be tonight" she asked suddenly anxious. He was too sick to be wandering around. "I'll sleep in the car," he said standing up and holding the chair afraid to leave the safety within the closed room, for the night meant loneliness and visions of Michael's crushed body.
"Look," she said, "wait awhile till you feel better. You can't sleep in a car that way." Have you no place to go to?" "I don't like going in the night in search of my friends. One never knows who is with them and even my friends would be surprised to see me." Surprised he thought was not the word. He smiled and sat down. "You know you are rather unconventional. What would your husband say when he comes in and sees me." "He'll never come," she said bitterly. He glanced at her startled. "My husband," she stopped, reluctantly and then rushed on the words spilling fast over each other. "We are divorced, he is married again."
"I am sorry" he said awkwardly wondering whether to express sorrow was correct. Suddenly she wanted to talk, tell this man her fears, he would have to listen and when he leaves her tomorrow he would be anonymous, just a name. He looked at her and said, "You could have married again. You are beautiful," and he added, "It must be difficult to bring up a child alone today." "He is rich, my husband and yet," she stopped "it's silly to call him my husband, perhaps the Sinhalese term is more appropriate, the father of my child. I am not used to this type of life. My mother died when I was young and my uncle arranged my marriage."
He felt her need to talk and when she stopped he asked softly, "What type of a man was he your husband?" "He was much older than me. I was just a school girl. He had clever friends and I didn't understand their conversations, or their way of life but he was rich and we went for dances and were in every kind of social organisations then the child was born. I wanted to be with her, but his friends were amused by what they called my maternal instincts, and then he had to go abroad. I went with him when I came back, she was not a baby but a toddler, talking, laughing and not recognising me her mother."
Nihal was not really listening, her voice had a huskiness that was soothing and the throbbing of head was easing off. He was hungry. Perhaps he could ask her for a cup of tea. "You are sleepy - my talk tires you," she asked. "No, you have a soothing voice" she looked at him sharply. "Look," he said, "I am too sick to be flattering."
She smiled. "Perhaps I should stop chatting and get you some tea. Have you got fever?" He shook his head "May be you would like to eat something". He nodded, he really was hungry.
He sipped the hot tea feeling refreshed. Her story had not been that unusual, it was the normal situation in very many families, especially among those who flitted from one social party to another. He too had once been at almost every cocktail party but then the fun had begun to pall and he had seen behind the facade of gay eager conversation and loud laughter, the loneliness and the fear of those who felt that life was passing them, they were losing their improtance and beauty.
But why the divorce, he asked for the night gave security to an easy conversation. "But surely there would have been some other reason for the divorce?" "May be it's my fault, Anil was busy at work, I never thought that his Secretary was his companion of the nights when he did not come home and then there was Chitra, I could not reach her really. She had all the toys and gimmicks money could buy but neither Anil nor I were close to her. She was more with the servants, her school friends, her teachers, and then when she was almost eleven, she fell sick. She had been feverish and sick for many days but I didn't know, I wasn't at home. I had gone with Anil for some function he was invloved in out of town. When we came back she was very ill with a high fever, we rushed her to a doctor. He gave her antibiotics. We did not know that she was coming in for an infectious disease we did not know anything really. The antibiotics they saved her life later but ," her eyes misted, left her almost deaf and totally dumb.
"What?" asked Nihal, his weariness forgotten. Neela was silent. It was as if she had forgotten that he was there. Nihal watched her mobile face reflecting the sadness and the loneliness. It was strange he thought the almost silent room disturbed by the slow beat of the clock and the stillness of the woman in front of him. She got up suddenly. "It doesn't matter, you rest a bit." He watched her leave and then closed his eyes in sudden despair. The child was dumb. How could he find out anything from her.
Chitra tossed restlessly in her sleep. She was dreaming of the man in the theatre. He had mumbled that he would kill her if she did not speak. How she longed to speak, to talk, laugh. They were around her shouting "Speak, Speak." She struggled violently, her dreams mingling with the reality when she had woken up one bright sun filled morning asking for water and no-one had heard her. One day she had been laughing, shouting with her friends and then the voices were hushed, softly heard, sometimes never heard and gradually dim sounds only, and then she had woken up, asked for a glass of water and they had stared at her fearfully.
Her friends had come and left silently. She had struggled, tried to run, dashed the glass on the floor, kicked and yet no sound had come from her throat except the peculiar gurgling sound of dribbling water from a half closed tap. Neela had held her down, the doctor gave her medicine to quieten her and then gradually she had been moody, gazing aimlessly at silent people.
She mocked them sometimes and watched their startled expressions happy that she could surprise them and then she slowly withdrew to her world of drawings. She heard the voices softly. She had to listen intently but she was happy when she heard the voices. One day she may speak she thought but it never happened. And it was always the same dream the same terror. She struggled in her bed, her body wet with sweat, she threw the pillows away, struggling to make a noise, a sound, her mouth open, gasping. The man in the theatre was chasing her and she was running, trying to call, to reach the man with the gentle smile who had waved at her. He would save her she was sure.
Neela rushed to the room when she heard her struggling. She tried to wake her but it was as if her frightful nightmare was too strong for her to be awakened. Nihal heard the high gasping sounds and the woman saying "Chitra, child, child wake up." He dragged himself from the chair and walked into the room. The woman was too frail to hold the struggling kicking child. He went near her and said "Take some cold water and rub it on her face or some eau-de-cologne something to shock her out of her dream."
Chitra opened her eyes startled when the cold water touched her forehead. She saw not her mother, but the man she had smiled at. He was there to keep her safe. She looked at him, her eyes wide with surprise. She frowned slightly - was he dead? He touched her head gently. She smiled at him again and then reached for his hand, pressed her cheek against it, turned round and closed her eyes.
Neela looked at her surprised. "She must have seen some terrible dream and may be I was a hero in it," he said trying to ease his hand away. The child held it hard against her cheek. "May I sit on the bed," he asked, "I'll wait till she sleeps." Neela frowned. She did not want any man to enter their lives. Men only could hurt and bring sadness. Anil had said she was cold. "Even in bed," he had said once brutally "there is little we have in common." Remembering her fears she stood nonplussed looking at Nihal. He had so soon disrupted the surface of their lives. She was tired, she wanted time to think.
She left him in the room and went back to the hall. He came sometime later and said "She is asleep. Is she always that frightened in her dreams?" 'No' she said "she was a normal child till her illness. Then she started getting those terrible nightmares. Even awake she used to go into terrible tantrums, knock her head against the wall, hit, scratch. Oh! it was awful and Anil wanted her to be sent to an institution - the doctor felt that her mind was affected. But I could feel her fear. She was like a tortured animal - how could I condemn her to an institution. She was my child and it was my carelessness that caused all this."
"You musn't blame yourself," he said. "is there no way to cure her?" "I read in a magazine that some hospital in England is experimenting with such cases. Perhaps I may be able to take her there. She can hear a bit better now, she heard the quarrels Anil and I had. We did not know she could hear till one day when we were arguing she rushed in sobbing, clinging to me and not allowing Anil to touch ner. He was furious, that was just before he went abroad. he said, When I come back this nonsense will have to stop. We must place her in an institution under specialized care. But by the time he came back we had left." Neela added bitterly. "He did not care that much for I heard that he had married soon after the divorce came through."
She was silent. He could feel her humiliation. "But you are young and one day some man will woo you and you'd be happy." She laughed cynically. "The only men who want to know me are those who think that because I am without a husband I must be needing a man to sleep with." He looked at her shocked and then he laughed suddenly. She laughed too and said "You rest. I must sleep now. It has been a hard day."
She got up and added as an after thought "Chitra can draw beautifully. She is very talented. She can draw portraits and they are almost as good as any photograph." She stopped. "Yes" he asked her anxiously." Please you started to say something can't you trust me?" Neela was silent then she said "You'll not let anyone harm her." - To be continued
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