Interesting how one hour of watching someone could tell you so much—or so little—about that person.
Sepalika took her eyes off her group, and leaned back into the seat of the tour bus. Her job as a tour guide in Sri Lanka involved being in touch with people from all walks of life. While it had overwhelmed her at the beginning, she had come to love this part of the job after some time. Observing tourists from around the world and their reactions to her country, and trying to catch and analyze the vibe they radiated, was fun. It helped her overcome the boredom of routine. While she automatically recited historical facts or shared a colorful anecdote for the umpteenth time, she had the chance to take in her listeners and form an opinion about them. Long bus rides were also a good opportunity, as they completely forgot about her presence as soon as she shut her mouth.
Each and every one of them had a story to tell, and she loved guessing about their background, using the little details to construe a picture in her mind, neatly labeled—and sometimes not so easily categorized.
Sepalika half turned in her seat, her gaze inevitably drawn to the person of her group that had caught her eye an hour ago.
Daniel Byrne from Ireland.
Ginger-haired, intimidatingly tall. Polished cheekbones you could cut yourself on, a square jaw, eyes of an impossible color she couldn’t put her finger on. Gray maybe?
In the lobby during the introduction she had shaken his hand, hers momentarily engulfed in his long, strong fingers, and a jolt of awareness had penetrated her calm, nearly wiping the practiced smile off her face.
Who was he?
She let her eyes stray to his still figure at the back of the tour bus, too far away to be studied the way she craved it. He was sitting in a window seat with his arms folded across his chest, the pose perfectly highlighting his finely toned muscles. Since the time the ride had started and her introductory speech was over, he had been staring out of the window at the scenery flying by—grand hotels, shabby shacks, shop after shop encroaching on the road, startlingly blue glimpses of the ocean. He never lost his tense-jawed, solemn expression. Every few minutes, he’d cast his glance around the bus, flitting over each group member for a second. With a frown, he’d return to gazing out.
What on earth was bothering this man?
Something had to be on his mind, weighing him down.
And yet, after some time she thought he didn’t so much seem troubled but rather serious and lost in thought. The quiet air of confidence and self-contained loneliness about him drew her in.
This was new. She hadn’t had one of this kind among her sheep to shepherd before. That must be why her gaze unfailingly returned to him…and why she remembered how safe her hand had felt in his firm, dry grasp.
She also remembered having smiled at him in her usual way, all friendly and open and toothy, and having met no smile-in-return.
It had been the first time one of her tourists hadn’t returned her welcoming expression that a colleague of hers had dubbed the ‘million dollar smile’. Why hadn’t he smiled back?
She shook her head, and snapped her focus back to the here and now. No use getting so worked up about this man. He’d be gone in a week or two. Besides, he was off limits to her. There was a line to draw, and she knew better than to overstep it.
It was much nicer to slip back into her usual behavior and enjoy guessing about people’s lives.
Take the elderly couple at the front of the bus, for example. Hans and Lisa Zimmermann from Germany had arrived here by cruise ship and booked the tour to make the most of their week-long stay on the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, as Sri Lanka was poetically called. She watched the small smiles they exchanged all the time, saw the husband hold the handbag for his wife, saw the wife urge the husband to drink some water. The palpable aura of love surrounding them like a happy bubble made her smile. They must have married some forty, fifty years ago and spent their life in wedded bliss, fighting together against whatever was thrown their way. Now, retired and in as good a health as one could wish for in their late seventies, they traveled the globe in search of golden memories to treasure until their time had come.
Sepalika’s smile turned sad. She couldn’t picture a life for herself that was as rosy as the one she had painted in her mind. Joy and togetherness were as far away to her as the countries the tourists had come from.
Suppressing a sigh, she moved on to a new subject of study.
She wondered what might have brought the two young women to Sri Lanka who sat smack in the middle of the bus and hadn’t stopped bitching since the minute they had boarded. If you weren’t willing to see something positive, why make the effort and come at all? She suspected they were keen on getting a tan to boast and exotic photos to share on social media. Having chosen the next-best, cheapest last-minute offer, they were now dealing with new experiences the only way they knew how to: complaining, condemning and cursing. They were probably calling themselves BFFs and going to college together, but she’d bet her last salary that deep down they couldn’t stand the sight of each other, and were only in it for some kind of profit or goal to achieve. What a way to enjoy some time off! So much wasted!
Having left the Colombo Fort with its historic buildings behind, the bus stopped at their destination, and Sepalika pulled herself together. Collecting her thoughts, she got up and turned toward the others, their expectant gazes directed on her like so many spotlights, making her the center of attention. Fixing her gaze in the safe middle distance, she launched into her announcement.
“You can see before you the splendors of the National Museum of Colombo, one of the main attractions in the capital.”
She gestured behind her and gave her tourists a moment to admire the grand white building.
“Established in 1877, the Sri Lanka National Museum is a treasure trove of artefacts, regalia and relics of early times, the monarchy and the various colonial masters from Portugal, the Netherlands and Great Britain. The Colombo Museum was founded by a British Governor of Ceylon, Sir William Henry Gregory. Among the highlights are exhibits like the throne and crown jewels of the last King of Kandy, various Buddha statues, and a copy of the famous Statue of Tara. The ground floor exhibits follow a historical pattern, whereas the sequence in the upper galleries is ordered on a thematic basis.”
She paused for effect, casting her gaze over them like a fisherman his net.
“In the museum, we will be joined by an English-speaking guide who will take us through the building’s halls. If you wish for something to be translated into Spanish or French, you can turn to me. It is not permitted to take photographs inside the museum.”
She steeled herself against the murmured complaints about not being allowed to take photos, unleashed the force of her smile on the group, and herded them off the bus.
Inside the museum, she stepped back and let the guide take over once everybody had got their tickets and had their bags checked.
After stretching her limbs from the bus ride, she shook out her long, black hair which almost reached the small of her back. With practiced movements, she retied it in the convenient ponytail she wore for work. Dressed in low-heeled, brown leather sandals, navy blue jeans and a white polo shirt with the writing "Coconut Tours" and the logo of two palm trees on a tiny island, she was easily identified as a tour guide. Her employer strove to keep things neat and professional, whereas some of the guides flooding the hall with their groups looked anything but professional and more bored or harassed than neat.
Checking her watch, she fell into place with her group, winding her way through the slightly musty smelling and not cool enough rooms of the ground floor.
Her gaze lingered on the one person who interested her today, the silent, brooding riddle of an Irishman. He had left his black knapsack behind in the bus. In his slender, long fingers, he carried a leather-bound notebook with a silver pen clipped to it. Was he planning to take notes? How strange!
The exhibits flickered by in a blur, only taken in through the corner of her eyes because she was so used to them. She knew where to quicken her pace and move on to something more interesting, where to slow down and cast a lingering, longing glance, when to smile secretively to herself at a snippet of knowledge or an error she had caught in the guide’s never-ending stream of information.
History was one of her biggest interests, but she didn’t like being force-fed during the course of an hour. There were too many objects warranting attention and deserving respect. She had spent hours—no, days—in the museum familiarizing herself with the exhibits in the Cultural Division. Some items she greeted like a familiar friend, others she never even looked at. On most days, she let her mind wander during the 60-odd minutes of the museum tour.
Today was different, however.
Again and again, her mind focused on her Irish tourist, like a stray dog hopefully following a pedestrian who was carrying a fresh loaf of bread home.
He must be interested in history too, she decided. There was no other reason to explain why he looked so reluctant to pry himself away from an exhibit whenever the group moved on. Time and again, he lagged behind, pouring over a glass case or scribbling hastily into his notebook.
It made her smile and peaked her curiosity. She, too, was lagging behind now, the rest of her group left to the devices of the almost fluent museum guide. What fun it was to see his face break out into countless different expressions, from wonder over deep concentration to reactions so personal that a normal person would never have expressed them in the face of an inanimate, historical item on public display. She had rarely seen someone wear their emotions and thoughts on their sleeve—or rather, on their forbiddingly handsome face—as much as this tourist.
If only she could have a glimpse of what was going on in his mind to spark such reactions! Or she’d gladly settle for hearing him speak again, because his slightly husky, deeper than deep voice had sounded like music to her ears. He had only said his name and an utterly polite “pleased to meet you”, unlike the others who were more eager to reciprocate her greeting. And God help her, he had that lilting Irish accent she had fallen in love with during her stay in England years ago!
Sepalika decided to help matters along.
He was standing in front of a glass cabinet whose shelves were lined with heads made out of stone, in a range of sizes, colors and display of details. They had all once belonged to Buddha statues. Presented together like this, they were an admirable case study of how aesthetic values and artistic skills had changed over the course of centuries.
Walking closer, she said, “Fascinating, aren’t they?”
His head snapped up and toward her, as if he had been roughly awoken from deep sleep. His eyes, shimmering somewhere between light blue and dark gray, narrowed when he stared at her for a moment. The hint of a frown marred his face with a wrinkle between his eyebrows. He looked displeased to be disturbed. With a curt “they are”, he returned his attention to the artifacts.
Determined to get a foot in, Sepalika stepped even closer. Setting her jaw, she ventured ahead, “Many believe the head is the most important part of every Buddha statue, although the hands with their symbolic gestures are crucial too. Up to date, when construction or renovation on a statue is done, the head is covered until everything is finished and the unveiling ceremony takes place.”
Again, he looked at her. The frown was gone. Was he thawing?
His gaze rested on her rather than the objects, so she ploughed on, “If you look at these closely, you’ll realize they not only represent the era they are from and the artist’s skills as well as the common tastes, but also influences from abroad. Some of these show curly hair the Indian style, others decidedly feminine features, yet others a long and slender face with a peaked head and dangling earlobes instead of a rounded, symmetrical face.”
His gaze followed her pointing finger. He leaned in and studied the statue heads even closer than before.
They were standing so close their shoulders touched. A tantalizing scent tingled her nostrils and clouded her senses. Whatever cologne this man was using was travelling straight to her nerves and setting them on fire. There was a spicy, woodsy note to it, with less cloying sweetness than usual perfumes. She wanted to press her nose against his skin and inhale his invitingly male scent. She wanted to…
His voice invaded her reverie.
“You’re right. There are so many obvious and subtle differences, and parallels to the statues of India, Thailand and Myanmar. Speaking about that, will we get to see the famous Avukana Buddha Statue in Anuradhapura on our round trip?”
Ah, there was his lilting, almost sing-song Irish accent again. Sepalika felt like swooning, but she pulled herself together and hid behind professionalism. Looked like he had made his homework, and was quite knowledgeable on the subject.
“I’m afraid not. We’re stopping at the Golden Temple of Dambulla, though, which showcases a huge, beautiful Buddha statue and many smaller, older ones in the rock caves.”
He nodded, and she felt oddly panicky that he’d move on and she’d never get another chance to talk to him, to hear his velvety voice, to leave a lasting impression.
“Did you know that the face of a Buddha statue used to be the last thing a Sri Lankan artist would work on?”
Now he seemed genuinely interested. With slightly raised eyebrows, he turned fully to her. His gaze scanned her from head to toe and wandered slowly up again, lingering almost like a caress. She was trying furiously not to blush under his stare. Was he checking her out? He couldn’t be. Surely he was just realizing she might be worth his attention after all.
“Really? Care to enlighten me?”
She cared to do quite a lot of things with him, least of all enlighten him. His reaction and nearness made her scramble for words. The only thing that saved her from stuttering was her love for the subject and the vast pool of information she could dive into.
“Yes. I mean the huge, life-sized or gigantic Buddha statues, not so much the decorative, smaller ones. More than the face, the eyes held a special importance. They were once saved for last.”
Sepalika saw his obvious interest mingle with a gleam of admiration, and the butterflies in her stomach danced a victorious dance. Resisting the urge to fiddle with her hair or clothes under his scrutiny, she continued, “A special auspicious date and time was decided according to astrological charts. The artist would fast and observe religious rituals and be escorted to do his task with ceremonial music and religious chanting. He’d approach the statue reverently and turn his back to it, working with his arms stretched out backward. It was forbidden to face the statue because its gaze should not fall on the artist’s face first, and he shouldn’t look into the statue’s eyes. A mirror would be held in place, and with special skill and intuition, the man would use a chisel to create the eyes, never once turning toward them.”
Her Irish tourist—since when had he become hers?—was hanging on every word, all but glued to her lips. Inside, she glowed with pride and satisfaction. Who thought she’d ever impress someone with all the knowledge she had stored away inside, and which nobody else knew about or would treasure?
“Wow, I would never have guessed it. So does this tradition still continue?”
“Not as far as I know. But even after construction and painting have been completed on the bigger Buddha statues you can find at temples or road crossings or important pilgrimage sites these days, the head will be covered by a cloth until the inauguration ceremony.”
“Truly intriguing. I had no idea. It goes to show how much meaning a mere statue can hold, how much power it exerts even though it is without life.”
She nodded vigorously because he was echoing her sentiments.
When he started walking, a jab of disappointment shot through her. Everything inside her screamed to have him close again, listening or talking or being there for her to study. To her delight, he went on talking while his feet carried him after the rest of the group who were at the other end of the hall.
“It’s why I love statues so much. They’re what I’m drawn to most in a museum, so much like people, anything but silent.”
This was getting spooky. How could he put into words what she felt inside? How could two people think the same thing about such a topic?
“It’s exactly the same with me,” she said, hoping she didn’t sound too confused or enthusiastic.
His gaze darted over her again, searching, probing, analyzing, much in a way she knew she did it with others all the time.
Had she caught his interest the way he had sparked her curiosity?
Somehow, he sounded as if he didn’t believe her. Why did that hurt her? Why did she care?
A tiny beeping sound kept her from asking him why museums obviously fascinated him so, or telling him why she was fascinated by them. Pulling her phone out of her pocket, she realized her timer had gone off to indicate they were nearing the end of the tour. They had only another 30 minutes left before they needed to board the bus again.
Sepalika started to hurry away and tend to her group of sheep again, but an invisible force was pulling her back. Searching for the right thing to say to not lose his attention, she suggested rather boldly, “If you’re so interested in the topic, I can recommend the book Monuments of Time by M. Hettiarachchi. I found that little story in his well-researched, wonderfully written book. In fact, I think they sell it at the souvenir shop we’re all headed for. I’m sure you’d love it. I mean, being a history fan and…”
What on earth was she babbling about? She must be possessed by a devil to ask a tourist of her group to buy a certain book, and to presume he’d “love it”.
Surprise widened his eyes. Hadn’t they been blue-gray a moment ago? She could swear there was something decidedly green about them now.
“Are you sure it isn’t a clever trick to earn commission from an expensive sale?”
Thank God there was a lightly joking tone to his voice, or she’d have been mortified. Blushing to the roots of her hair, she shook her head. A bit of wounded pride wormed its way into her harsh answer.
“Hundred percent sure. I’m not one of those tour guides who talk their tourists into ill-spending money to make a quick buck.”
She scurried after her group, cursing under her breath how nicely she was making a fool of herself.
What the hell had gotten into her? She’d never acted like that with a tourist before.
It was him. Everything about him drew her in and turned her upside down.
Even now, after the scene she wished she could erase, her gaze rested on him. In the short time she had been standing next to him, a myriad of details had registered with her, taken in and only afterward processed.
His height, making him look all the more confident and silently commanding. She was tall for a Sri Lankan, but he was good head taller than her and must be topping six feet easily. Dressed in light-blue jeans and a dove-colored T-shirt with a blue collar, his blondish-brownish hair showed a prominent ginger tinge.
How stereotypical, a mysterious, history-loving, introverted red-head from Ireland, the country of magic and myths. Was this the reason why he tugged at her heart strings when none of the caramel- or coffee-colored men of her own race did?
For a moment, Sepalika allowed herself a flashback into the past. Six years ago, she had been studying for her Bachelor degree in Tourism and Hospitality in London, oceans away, feeling more at home than in her country of birth.
Her thoughts flitted to Henry, the charismatic, slightly geeky English student who had sat next to her during their Hotel Management classes—and who had captured her heart. For more than a year, she had let herself be swept away by the whirlwind of their affair, the thrill of hiding it, the adrenaline kick of dating a foreigner in a country alien to her.
Then bad news had reached her from the tiny speck of land in the Indian Ocean.
Henry was part of the past. There was no space for Daniel to be part of her present or any man to become part of her future.
With a sigh, Sepalika pulled herself back into reality, making up her mind to not seek conversation with her fascinating tourist again. She shot him a last longing glance, watching for a moment how he ignored the colorful memorabilia and took every single book down from the shelves to inspect it.
Hardening herself against her stupid heart, she went over their itinerary in her mind.
They had a tight schedule to keep to if they wanted to reach the next destination on time. The tour of Colombo on Day 1 of the round trip had only just begun.
She was looking forward to a bit of sea breeze and salt spray today.
* * *
Three hours later, the said breeze toyed with her ponytail and blew an errant strand of hair into her face.
Sepalika licked her lips, tasting salt and tang with a tinge of dust. Her gaze roamed over the wide expanse of ocean before her, stretching to the horizon, dotted with cargo ships bound for the recently inaugurated harbor. Sure, Galle Face Green with its proximity to noisy Galle Road, 5-star hotels and the buzz of the business district was not nearly as rewarding as a sandy beach with palm trees, but the ocean was the ocean.
She felt humbled by the grandeur in varying shades of blue, green, aquamarine and turquoise. The sea was a miracle beckoning to be explored. If only she could…
There was shouting and frantic movement. Before she knew it, she was yanked aside by her arm, and she fell to the ground with a surprised yelp.
Sepalika landed not on unyielding asphalt with sand and stones, but on a hard body. For an instant, everything spun out of focus, and her ears buzzed. A moment later, the picture righted itself, and she gasped, then froze.
A mere couple of inches away from her face was another face. Not any face, but a decidedly Irish and handsome face, two gray-green-blue eyes staring into her wide open, black ones. She was enveloped in the scent of wood and spices with a hint of sweetness, his faint breath on her face stirring something inside her that the stronger sea breeze hadn’t.
They stared at each other unblinkingly while her mind whirred and tried to get a grip on what had happened. Daniel’s strong hand was still gripping her arm tightly, and the touch sent sparks through her. She was lying on top of him, their limbs pressed against each other, their thudding hearts matching in rhythm.
The rest of the world didn’t matter. She didn’t care where she was or who she was. She never wanted this moment to end.
Of course it did end, and as abruptly as it had begun.
Sense returned with a vengeance, as did the noises and action surrounding them.
Sepalika blinked, swallowed, and scrambled to get off Daniel. The movement brought delicious friction, their bodies rubbing against each other in an almost suggestive way that sent her pulse on overdrive. His gaze travelled lower than her face. It didn’t help her composure at all.
Somehow, she made it to her feet, her savior following suit automatically, as though they were glued to each other.
She stared around her wildly, and the scene pieced itself together.
Several feet away, a young child and his bicycle had come to a stop. The boy’s parents were running toward them from one side, the caring elderly couple from her group approaching with worried faces from the other side. Looked like she would have been run over by the speeding child on the cycle if her Irishman hadn’t pulled her out of the way at the last moment.
Feeling shakier than the situation warranted it, she gave in to a tirade, scolding the boy in a staccato of rapid-fire Sinhalese, and pointing to her savior as well as the other tourists closing in on them.
The child’s parents, not much older than Sepalika, joined them. The mother excused her son’s behavior profusely, intimidated by the foreigners around them.
“Ane, Miss, samavenna! Please forgive us, Miss,” she repeated over and over again, wringing her hands. The father cuffed the boy’s ear and made him get off the bike to wheel it, the way he should on the promenade so perilously close to the wall’s sheer drop into the ocean.
After a deep breath, Sepalika readied herself to face her savior again, hovering close by as protectively as a bodyguard, making it more difficult to calm down.
“Are you alright? I’m so sorry, this shouldn’t have happened,” she said.
God, how many more times was she planning on making a fool of herself today? She should have been alert and professional, instead of taking a quick breather and letting the ocean spellbind her. If he hadn’t been there, she could have ended up with some minor injuries. What she had ended up with because of his lightning-fast reaction was a major injury to her self-confidence, smarting more than a physical wound would have.
He ran a hand back through his hair which the sticky sea breeze had curled slightly, looking good enough to eat with that simple gesture and the hidden fire in his now nearly turquoise eyes.
“I’m grand. No need to say sorry.”
Was she imagining things or was the sentence filled with innuendo, suggesting he didn’t feel the least bit sorry that she had been sprawled atop him? Feeling her cheeks heat up, she lowered her gaze and clenched her fists to find the last vestiges of control.
“No, really, I feel terrible about this. You aren’t hurt, I hope?”
When she dared to glance up at him, there was a strange humorous glint in his eyes.
“I’m not. There’s nothing to worry about. And you?”
Only now did she check on herself, noticing dust on her jeans and a small abrasion on her left palm. The instant she caught sight of it, the insignificant wound started burning, the two-three drops of blood adding meaning to the situation.
“I’m perfectly fine, thanks.” After a beat, she added with feeling, “And thank you for saving me.”
Good grief, hearing the word “pleasure” drawled out in his Irish accent and cultured voice would be her undoing.
Sepalika turned to the only anchor available, reassuring Mr. and Mrs. Zimmerman that she was alright, accepting the tissue quickly doused in water by the kind old lady. She never once turned back to him until all of her group had assembled and they made their way back to the tour bus.
What a start of the week-long round trip this was proving to be!
Could it get any worse? Should it get any better?