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He wasn’t the type she found attractive. Rather short with a huge round stomach that protruded out he reminded her of a gargoyle she’d seen in an old building. It glared from the top of a gutter, eyes popping out, its mouth opened in an ugly yawn that vomited out water. He was a little like that, especially when he laughed. His eyes would pop out and his stomach would shudder as he bellowed out softly. The first time she’d been repulsed. Yet Namali also found herself drawn to him. It was a strange feeling of revulsion and attraction. A potent combination.
They had nothing in common. She liked the theatre and painting while the only interest he appeared to have was in reading the newspaper. Everyone read the newspaper but to him it was an obsession. He’d buy all the papers and spend the evenings reading and rereading them analyzing the news and trying to figure out why a particular story had been written. He’d question her about it sometimes, but after a few attempts give up as he found her unresponsive. Her idea of a relaxing evening was sitting outside in the garden or at a restaurant sipping a drink and gazing at the birds flying overhead or watching splashes of colours merging into each other in the sky as the sun began to set. Not reading a newspaper, especially an old one.
It wasn’t a normal kind of relationship. Anil had moved into the house at the end of Second Lane that had just been built. The owners, whoever they were had sold the original house. She remembered the old house because it was something she liked. She’d seen it as a child and had been captivated by the beauty of the architecture. It was built like any old house and had that same quality of ease, freedom and relaxation that was part of that era, now long past. The garden too was something to admire. But Anil had torn it down to build a rather nondescript structure in a part of the property.
None of the neighbours thought much of him either. Kavitha who lived close by had been surprised that she was interested in him.
“You seriously like him? But you have nothing in common.”
There was a note of concern in her voice. She looked at Namali wondering if she was pulling her leg only to realise Namali was dead serious.
“I don’t know what it is. But I find myself being pulled into something. Like, like, what’s the word, being sucked into a vacuum or something.”
She could never figure out what attracted her to him even though she had tried to reason it out, taken out all the possibilities lined them up on her table and picked them one by one. There was nothing that fitted. What was the attraction? It had always been a mystery. He was just another ordinary man in an ordinary town. Not a person that commanded anything but a fleeting glance. But there was something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Something unfathomable that seemed to rest just beyond the surface, well out of reach from her. Was that the reason? Was it the unknown that attracted her?
They lingered late into the night sitting under the rustling branches that strained from the side of the compound wall, a little lamp on the table and the moon trying valiantly to wipe away the film of clouds that covered it like an old man’s cataract. The sea roared a few feet away. She couldn’t see the waves heaving and rolling but she could see their white crests running towards her like the lace on a dancers skirt and then disappear as they flattened themselves on the shore and got sucked in by the sand. She wasn’t interested in the call of the sea or the wave’s insistence, calling her to listen to its story. She was curious about the man sitting in front of her.
Their dates had always ended when the sun set. Three dates to be exact. The second time she had joked that it felt like he was playing at being Cinderella except that instead of the clock striking the hour it was the suns disappearance that caused him to leave. But today was different. He had asked her to stay on and although she was busy she had agreed. She was keen to know why he’d changed his mind. She didn’t probe but hoped he’d tell her when the time was right. They had sat sipping colas watching the sun plunge into the horizon and then they walked towards the beach restaurant a short distance away for dinner. He’d not brought any of the newspapers he usually carried in a bag and for once they had sat talking about mundane things, not things he’d picked up from the newspapers.
It had been an unusually hot day and the air around them was still warm yet the breeze floating from the sea was extremely chilly. It made her shiver although she wasn’t certain if this was from the cold or from the sense of apprehension she was beginning to feel as the night set in minute by minute. The cataract moon shone dull like its lights had been punched out. Yet the stars still hung out in their usual places, keeping watch over everything. Sitting there on the beach surrounded by music from the band playing inside she felt a darkness enveloping her, grabbing at her throat so hard that she almost choked on the salad.
The stars blinked as she passed below them hand in hand with the man she’d been curious about for so long. What was it that attracted her to him? She wondered for the umpteenth time. Was she even attracted to him or was it something else? Something she couldn’t quite name. Something that didn’t have a name as it was not something that had ever happened to her or to anyone she had known.
The stars blinked harder as if trying to make her change her mind but she didn’t look up. If she had she’d have caught their looks of concern. But she walked on, staring ahead into the dark night and refusing, for once to look down as their joint shadows. She walked over the shadows unaware of their bizarre shapes that resembled dancing demons. The shadows deepened around them, now in front now curling towards their back to get lost at their feet and reappear again long and tall, depending on where they were in position to the street lights. The moon had given up trying to tear the film of clouds from its sight.
The gate creaked ominously. The low shrubs created macabre shadows on the lawn on either side of the driveway. He opened the door and let her in. There wasn’t much to see. The room was ordinary, just like the man. But there was something that made her wary. Why did the front door open into a room and not a sitting room or lounge like it did in all houses? And why was the room so small? There was a table and a chair next to the wall and something on it. Something small that gleamed in the light from the overhead lamp that had been left on. Why did he leave the light on? Didn’t he switch off the lights like everyone did? He must have switched it on before he left to meet her earlier in the evening. But it wasn’t even dark. She was troubled. She took a few steps inside and hesitated. She could feel the dinner churning inside her threatening to run up her inside and pour out any minute. Turning towards him she tried to speak but he had his hand above the light switch.
With a click the switch moved down; the lights went out. Everything changed in that one second. She’d entered another world. The walls leered at her through the dark, the shadows on the curtains played nasty tricks on her mind and then she saw him, coming towards her with a smile on his face. It was all she could see. White teeth gleaming in the dark like some luminous light shining bright. It was then that she realised what it was that had held her back so long. The loud gasp came out of nowhere. It surprised them both. He stopped startled as if not expecting it. The door was in front of her, just behind him. If only she could get to it before he got to her. She made a dash towards it but he was faster. She screamed while he laughed that terrible laugh that leapt into the air and hopped all over the walls like some crazy frog screaming to be let out but the windows were shut tight and the door had suddenly disappeared.