(You can read this scene even if you haven't read the book yet. It's (mostly) spoiler-free. Buy links for the novel are here.)
Sepalika cranked up the volume and sang along to her favorite Christmas tune, Last Christmas by Wham. Smiling softly to herself, she moved around the kitchen to get bowls and other utensils ready.
Although Sri Lanka was a Buddhist country, there was no way of escaping the festive season here. The Portuguese, the Dutch and the English had all left their traditions behind those days, and with the conquest of the internet, Christmas had permeated every nook and cranny of the island now. Not just the Christians living here enjoyed the festive spirit, but also others. Every supermarket and hotel, every restaurant and shop put up decoration. Christmas carols in various languages blared out of speakers from morning until evening. There were discounts and special offers all around, and on December 1st, crackers sounded the first alert that the holiday season had commenced.
Sepalika might be Buddhist, but her years in England had made her fall in love with the Christmas spirit, with its joy of giving and sharing, its incomparable music and sweet delights. And now that Daniel was a part of her life, the holiday season had taken on even more meaning.
Her smile widened when she thought of her lovely Irishman and the surprise she was about to prepare for him.
She carried a big bowl to the kitchen island and slowly lifted the cover. The bowl was filled with raisins, grated apples, the juice and rind of oranges and lemons, almond flakes, finely chopped cherries and peels. She had mixed them with brown sugar, spices like cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, as well as a few spoonfuls of imported Irish whiskey which had cost her a small fortune.
This was her first time of preparing Irish Christmas pudding, and she was eager to get it right. Daniel had soaked up all his impressions of the festive season in Sri Lanka, joking good-naturedly that the sunshine and high temperatures were a nice preparation for the blazing heat of Christmas down under that they were going to tackle next year.
Making sure the mixture was just right, Sepalika cut open a packet of breadcrumbs and checked the recipe on her phone.
Thinking of Australia took her back to the time when she had met Daniel. He had been a tourist in one of her groups, the first Irishman she’d ever encountered here. The couple of weeks in Sri Lanka had been his time-out between jobs before taking up a lecturing position at a university in Melbourne. Life had thrown him off course, though. Or should she say love? It had hit them both out of the blue and turned their worlds upside down.
Once they had overcome a dozen obstacles—which had taken them a few months—Daniel had happily ditched his Australian job and come back here to join her. He had followed her around on a few tours until he had found a teaching job at the British Council in Colombo. Although history and not English was his métier, he made for an excellent teacher. She knew first-hand, as she had been unable to resist sitting in on a lesson or two and glowing with pride.
Carefully, Sepalika stirred the breadcrumbs through the alcohol-soaked, sweetened fruit mix. She used the blender to mix salt, eggs, flour and butter together. Hopefully, the television upstairs would drown out the sound of the blender. She wanted to surprise Daniel with the Irish dessert. Surely he was missing his home, the snow and the soothing sense of familiarity.
Yesterday, on Christmas Eve, she had taken Daniel to a midnight mass at the St. Anthony’s Church in Mount Lavinia, which had been a new and rather exhilarating experience for both of them. Then they had allowed themselves the luxury of a grand Christmas dinner at the Mount Lavinia Hotel—the place where Daniel had stayed when she had met him as the tour guide.
Humming to the tune, Sepalika added the flour mixture to her fruit concoction and used a spoonful of milk to make things as moist as they should be.
She could hardly concentrate on the task of mixing everything thoroughly when her thoughts went back to last evening. Daniel had worn a neat dark gray suit, a white button-down-shirt and a dark red tie, color-matching it with her red midi-dress with sequins and lace trim. He’d looked good enough to eat, and stood out among everyone else. Even in a crowd of tourists from all around the globe mingling with affluent locals in sarees, gowns and formal wear, her tall, reddish-blonde Irishman had drawn attention—especially female attention. He’d recently taken to growing a goatee-like ginger scruff, well-groomed and scratching her soft skin enticingly whenever he rubbed his face against her.
He’d had eyes only for her, taking a dozen photos of her, a couple selfie in front of the creative Christmas tree in the lobby—which consisted entirely of tropical plants and red anthurium flowers—and more selfies with her on the pool terrace with its sparkling lights, as well as in the festively decked-out Governor’s Restaurant with its LED-lit ice sculptures. Then they had enjoyed the lavish buffet to a backdrop of live piano music.
They had walked around the hotel’s premises after dinner, sometimes stopped by acquaintances from her tour-guide days greeting her awkwardly, at other times attracting stares because Daniel spontaneously pulled her close to sway and dance to a timeless Christmas tune.
Sepalika smiled again, softly singing “last Christmas, I gave you my heart…” and sending a silent prayer upwards that this Christmas was so much better than last year’s.
With a grimace, she realized she was stirring a bit too harshly because of the dark memories. Sepalika forced her thoughts back to the present. She felt a blush creep up when she remembered her heated kisses with Daniel late last night—or make that early this morning. Adorable dork that he was, he had ordered an artificial mistletoe online and hung it above the kitchen door at home, (not so) accidentally bumping into her during the past few days so he could claim a kiss.
Home was, for now, a rented two-story apartment in a new housing scheme in Mount Lavinia. Her mother lived with them. It had taken her some time to overcome her mortification over Sepalika’s somewhat scandalous behavior, but she had finally warmed to the new man in her daughter’s life.
Sepalika smiled to herself. How could one not warm to Daniel? He was kind and attentive to a fault, honest and cultured, intelligent and funny. He had charmed his way right into her mother’s heart by learning a few words and phrases in Sinhalese, buying her pastries from the bakery across the road, and taking her to the beach and making her giggle like a shy school girl.
She had quickly found out just how fond of her “Dan putha” her mother had grown when the two of them conspired against her and organized a surprise whale-watching trip to Mirissa. It had culminated in the most romantic proposal she could have imagined, Daniel going down on one knee in the sand. He’d asked her mother to teach him a few meaningful lines in Sinhalese to propose, and Sepalika had dissolved into happy tears right there on the beach.
Looking at the slender white-gold wedding band on her ring finger with a diamond and Irish engraving, Sepalika sniffled quietly to herself before her mouth stretched into the widest smile yet.
She hadn’t been keen on a big wedding, for several reasons, so they had kept it low-key. Less than 50 guests had been invited to the party held at the charming Horizon Holiday Home perched high on the Kandyan hilltops. Among them had been her relatives from the small village near Kandy, her friend Deepak from India who’d studied in London with her and remained in regular contact throughout the years, and an artist friend of Daniel’s who had flown in all the way from Ireland. They had tied the knot in style and with simple charm, Sepalika dressed in an off-white saree embroidered with pearls and crystals, while Daniel wore a black three-piece-suit and looked so handsome he could be mistaken for a Hollywood star.
The wedding had been two months ago, and they had decided against a honeymoon because she was getting around the island all the time anyway, and because their budget was rather limited these days.
“Focus, girl, or your surprise will be a disaster that needs to be drowned in whiskey,” she scolded herself softly.
The song on the radio had changed to a Sinhalese version of Silent Night, and Sepalika checked the recipe on the phone again.
She gave the mixture one last stir and closed the lid tightly. Placing the bowl in big a saucepan of water, she switched the gas cooker on and waited for it to start boiling. Once the first bubbles had surfaced, she reduced the heat to let the pudding simmer and covered the saucepan.
Today’s late lunch—because they had slept in and then made love before blissfully dozing off again—would consist of vegetable fried rice, chicken curry in a spicy gravy, deep-fried fish in batter, mild dhal curry, a mixed salad and crispy papadums. They had bought rich Christmas cake and mango ice cream for dessert, but she couldn’t wait to see Daniel’s face when he discovered her little surprise later.
Sepalika glanced at the stove. The pudding would simmer for several hours, and by that time they should have enough free space in their stomachs to appreciate it properly. She scrolled until she found the recipe for the brandy sauce and fresh cream which would accompany the Christmas pudding.
Softly singing along to another Sinhalese Christmas carol, she let her mind wander to the future. Daniel had suggested they should stay in Sri Lanka for some more months, saving as much money as they could and giving her mother a chance to adjust to all the changes. Next year, they would try to find jobs in Australia, and if they liked it there and were in a better financial situation, they could ask her mother to join them.
Much had changed in Sri Lanka after the government change, but she still felt restless and not really at home. No, she corrected herself in her head, she had a home now, but it wasn’t a location per se, it was by Daniel’s side. She was looking forward to their adventurous stint down under, although a thousand worries loomed close. His optimism annoyed the heck out of her sometimes, but it was also one of his best traits and had smoothed many a rough spot for them already.
“Thinking of me, mo áilleacht gruaig dubh?”
The words were spoken softly right into her ear as two arms wound around her hips.
Sepalika started, a spoon clattering onto the counter even as her body automatically leaned against him. It still made her weak in the knees when he called her ‘my dark-haired beauty’ in Irish, although he had another ton of endearments that also made her belly flutter.
“Oh, you are deluded enough to believe you are the only thing I think about? Careful, your ego is so big it’ll be dwarfing the record-breaking Christmas tree on the Galle Face Green soon,” she jested.
Her sassy comment earned her a pinch at her hip and a mock-growl in her ear, the deep sound making butterflies dance in her belly.
“Can’t help having an inflated ego around you. How else is a man supposed to feel when he has snagged the most beautiful and amazing woman on the whole island?”
She giggled softly, half-turned and pressed a quick kiss to his mouth.
“I swear, you can charm your way out of anything. It’s not fair.” She brushed her fingers over the scruff along his strong jaw, soft and hard at the same time. “And I was indeed thinking of you, so you have all right in the world to stroke that ego.”
His hand came up to catch hers and hold it against his cheek, rubbing softly against it. “I’d much rather have you stroke said ego.”
He grinned before swooping down and demanding a proper kiss that had her panting for more and blinking owlishly up at him. His eyes, blue as the ocean and shining with love, never failed to captivate her.
“Deal,” she said a little breathlessly, itching to run her hands all over him. “But you’ll have to choose between that and Christmas lunch.”
He scrunched up his face in mock shock. “Woman, you are heartless. How can you expect me to choose one of the two?”
With another laugh, Sepalika wriggled out of his embrace, although it took Herculean effort to do so. “Well, I’m not as cruel as you think I am. I’ll make the choice for you. Food first, stroking later.”
Long arms ensnared her again so he could nuzzle her caramel-colored neck and sift his fingers through her long, black hair. “Think we might be able to fit dessert in somewhere too?”
Her gaze slid to the saucepan on the stove and hurriedly away. “I’m pretty sure you will always find a way to sneak dessert in.”
“You know me so well,” he murmured against the skin of her neck, nipping teasingly and working her into a frenzy.
Sepalika allowed herself another stolen kiss before she placed both hands on his firm pecs and pushed him away. “Go now, before I lose my willpower and skip right to dessert in bed.”
He wiggled his eyebrows saucily. “Promises, promises.”
They shared a laugh, and Daniel stepped away to lean against the counter and watch her move around the kitchen efficiently. He was dressed in faded denims and a grey T-shirt which stretched alluringly across his broad chest and shoulders. Sepalika had opted for an ankle-length white skirt with lace and a purple turtle-neck top.
Excitement rising, she whirled around the kitchen to get ready for their little feast. After a few minutes, her husband fell into step and helped her, grabbing dishes, washing curry bowls, folding napkins.
Together, they carried the lunch into the dining room and called Sepalika’s mother down from where she had been watching the annual Christmas concert with the crème de la crème of Sri Lanka’s actors, musicians and starlets.
After lunch, they all watched some television, and then it was finally time for presents.
They had bought Sepalika’s mother a shiny, paisley-patterned saree and a matching leather handbag. She kept protesting she wasn’t even celebrating Christmas, her eyes round.
“Here’s my small gift for you,” Sepalika said and handed over a parcel wrapped in sparkly purple, leaning over to press a chaste kiss to Daniel’s cheek in her mother’s company.
“Nollaig shona dhuit, merry Christmas,” she wished him in Irish, having listened to the correct pronunciation on YouTube to get the tongue-twister out correctly.
His face lit up, making him look like a young boy instead of a devastatingly handsome man.
“You shouldn’t have got me anything, seriously.” He squeezed her hand. “I have you by my side, and that makes it the best Christmas ever.”
Sepalika smiled. “Same here, but there was no way I would not get you something.”
She watched with bated breath as he unwrapped his present and whooped in delight. He had been expressing keen interest in all aspects of Sri Lankan life, not only in traditions and cuisine but also in clothing. So, she had got him a sarong in the exact same blue-grey shade as his eyes, and a matching handloom shirt with intricate batik patterns in white and black.
“Oh gosh, look at that!”
Daniel jumped up and down like an excited puppy, loosely wrapped the sarong cloth around his narrow hips and pranced around in front of them. Her mother was giggling again, telling him in her halting English that he would make a great mudalali.
“Thank you ever so much, darling.” He hugged Sepalika tightly, nearly lifting her off her feet.
“We’ll have to get you a matching kit of blouse and lungi, duwe” her mother chimed in. “You two need to do one of those photo shoots in a paddy field or somewhere, it’ll be a big hit.”
“Absolutely,” Daniel agreed, nodding his head vigorously.
With a groan of mock defeat, Sepalika threw her hands up and joined in on the merry laughter.
Daniel sobered up a little, pulling an envelope with a red ribbon out of his pocket.
“This is my gift to you. I hope you like it. Merry Christmas, my love. Subha naththalak wewa.”
Eyebrows raised and heart racing, Sepalika fumbled the envelope open. Out came a beautiful Christmas card and two tickets for a flight to Ireland in the new year.
Her eyes misted over. “Oh my god, Daniel. Can…can we really afford this?”
He pressed her close, one big hand rubbing her hip.
“We’ll just have to get by on rice and dhal for the rest of the month, shower once a week, and walk everywhere,” he said, his tone only half-joking. “But I couldn’t resist. I want to show you my home country before we embark on our Australian quest, because you have made me fall in love with your country.”
Sepalika threw her arms around him. “It’s a wonderful gift. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”