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Short story

The other woman

Daylight was slowly fading over the horizon, the last of its shades of orange, pink and yellow turning into a dull grey. A rumbling sound far away told her that a storm is close at hand. She just stood there staring, waiting for the darkness to envelope her.

"Mama, come see. Aren't they beautiful? Samuel taught me how to do them," her seven-year old daughter, Shalini, cried as she ran up holding her sketch book in front of her.

Nadeesha glanced at the blots of purple, orange and red on the paper.

"You take a flower like this, keep it face down and press it with your other hand. It's easy," the lass demonstrated with a marigold.

She stared blankly at the flower with its crushed petals, mixed emotions threatening to break free. She did not know whether to cry or smile. She was still in shock by the news.

He was gone! Gone, after all these years! How many times did she think that he had left them? But he always returned. He could not leave her or their child. They laughed, fought and cried together. They had hidden their love from prying eyes.

"I only wanted to love you but I did not intend to take things this far. Please believe me, my sweet Nadee. I love you," he had said on the day she had blurted out that she was with a child. His child!

Then the ugly secret raised its head.

"I am engaged, darling. It was a promise my father made long before to a friend. If I try to break it off, there will be such a scandal and it will kill my father. Darling, you know how he is. He had two strokes already and the doctors have asked him to take care. We try to make him happy. I will have to marry Ameesha but, Nadee, darling, it is only you I love."

She had given into his words. The only instance she had not listened to him was when he had pleaded with her to get an abortion. They had fought over it for hours. Yet she was not sorry, for Shalini was the light of her eyes.

He had been absent for weeks and just when she thought she had seen the last of him he came sneaking back to their apartment.

"We will have to keep it a secret," he said.

"If the press gets a wind of it, they will play havoc. Can you imagine the headline in the paper? 'Popular actor Akalanka's love child!'."

"I don't care. All I want is three of us to be happy."

She had clung to him weeping. He had tried to be with her whenever he could but with shooting, attending functions and family affairs it wasn't enough. His visits were limited to one or two per month.

Then came the joyful day that she was able to hold little Shalini in her arms but he was more than thousand kilometers away.

"I can't wait to see her, darling. I'm sure she's as beautiful as her mother."

He certainly had a way with words - and actions. A half a dozen yellow roses arrived at her doorstep.

"Are you an actress? Wait, I can remember you... You are the one who did the supporting role with Akalanka and Mayuri in a film some years back. Didn't you act after that?"

She avoided his leer and muttered a brief 'no' before quickening her pace.

They still remembered her after more than four years. She had a face that lingers in one's thoughts.

That was when they first met. She had come for interviews and had been taken in as a junior artiste. One look at her and the director had decided to cast her in the supporting role. She had been dizzy with excitement when the lead actor had looked around and given her a thumbs up.

Akalanka! The heartthrob of the nation had actually noticed her! She glowed with pride. Later he spoke to her.

"You know what? I'm crazy about you." He had smiled with a wink in all his boyish charm. They had been shooting in Nuwara Eliya for two weeks at a stretch and he had made it a point to seek out her company whenever they were given a break. She had caught her breath then, hardly believing her ears. She had desperately tried to please him but there wasn't much she could offer. All she got was a few pennies for her part. Besides, the director said, it was a big break for a nobody like her.

"Mama why doesn't daddy come home every night? Thiruni's daddy helps her with homework," Shalini asked at the beginning.

"Daddy works far away from home, darling. He is coming home to be with us whenever he can," she replied.

"Is daddy like Dimuthu's dad then? He says he stays in Dubai."

"Something like that, darling."

At times all these questions and fibs exhausted her. She had to explain why she was given her mother's maiden name, why daddy appeared on the papers with strange women, why it is not nice to speak about daddy in public, why daddy and they could not go out to the park together like other children.

"I can't make it on Wednesday. It is Vinod's parents' meeting and after that we take the children for a pizza," Akalanka had said avoiding her eyes. Rage had taken possession and she had burst into tears.

"It is Shalini's birthday. She always looks forward to see you here. She doesn't complain why she cannot have a party with friends like other kids. How could you do this to us? How could you be so selfish? Is Vinod your only child?" she cried, angry tears streaming down her cheeks.

Then the photographs had come.

'Marital bliss: star enjoys weekend in London with wife and kid' the headline had screamed at her over morning coffee.

Three pictures showed Akalanka with Ameesha and Vinod, cheering at a cricket match, walking along Buckingham Street and feeding the pigeons. She wanted to tear the paper into shreds.

The call had come out of the blue. It was her friend Christina, an actress who had started off with her and was still in touch with films. She was the only soul on earth who knew about their relationship.

"Nadee... I don't know how to tell you this..."

She held the phone tight, gripping it till her knuckles had turned white.

"What is it? Has something happened to him?"

"I'm so sorry. Akalanka met with an accident last night after coming home from a party. He had been drunk and the vehicle had gone out of control. The car toppled over a cliff..."

She couldn't recall the rest of the conversation. The receiver dropped out of her hand. 'He's gone... He's gone...' the words kept on ringing over and over in her head.

She did not attend the funeral. Even if she did she would be just one person among the crowd of mourners. A nobody in his life in the eyes of the crowd. She switched on the channel and watched the clips on the news.

"Get a hold of yourself. He is just using you. If he loves you why doesn't he dump his wife and marry you for god's sake?" Christina had argued. She had always offered the shoulder to cry on when things got worse between them. But she could not bear to hear such words spoken against him.

It was much better to live in the dream believing that he truly loved her and was trapped in a loveless marriage.

Vinod had appeared.

"It just happened. We were together in Australia to visit her sister. I was feeling lonely... missing you..." he had shrugged that off while taking her hands and looking into her eyes. She had forgotten all about it then but the ache had never gone away. It always came back when she was alone, her work done for the day. She dreaded those evenings when Shalini had band practices towards evening. He had never been with her at her time of need, to hold her hand or even rock her as she cried herself to sleep at night. But now even the hope of a miracle was snatched away.

There was a sudden flash of lightning followed by a clap of thunder. She started. Rain began to fall. One drop. Two. And then is became countless drops of rain and with them the tears fell at last.

Shoulders trembling and breathe coming in short, raspy gasps she cried for the past, the unfulfilled dreams she had lost to him.

..................................

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