"Now, now girls! Get ready... she's almost here!" Sharlene hurriedly gathered the little girls together in the Rosemary Orphanage for Young Girls.
Situated in Avissawella, the cooler, much greener part of the Colombo district, Rosemary Orphanage sheltered twenty girls, all of them abandoned by their parents at a young age. Sharlene De Silva was the administrator of this orphanage and loved her work – even if, at times, the less than delightful task of dealing with pubescent young women made her want to tear her hair out. Greying hair at that! Despite being only thirty, the strain of her much-loved job was showing. The girls would crack jokes at her expense... their dear stout Ms. Sharlene who stood a couple of inches shorter than some of the girls in her care!
"Is she really all that?" Jayani mumbled – just loud enough for Sharlene to hear.
Counting to ten in her head, Sharlene explained to Jayani for the umpteenth time that Arielle Davidson was their biggest contributor – without her they wouldn't be able to keep the orphanage running.
She held back from declaring that Ms. Davidson was a world-famous philanthropist, extremely gifted in the arts, whose music drew people in, touching their hearts and souls. Sharlene usually kept her distance from these celebrity 'donors' because they were usually after the good publicity it brought them instead of actually caring about the children in the orphanage. Ms. Arielle Davidson was different.
She donated most of her income from her music to support orphanages and low-income single parent families. And that was not all, she actually made an effort to regularly visit the places where she gave her contributions to and took a genuine interest in the children, or so it seemed to Sharlene.
The sound of the doorbell broke Sharlene free from her momentary reverie.
"That must be HER!" she fumbled around excitedly, searching for the bouquet of flowers that the children had gathered from the garden.
"Here you go, Ms. Sharlene," Jayani timidly handed her the bouquet.
Looking kindly at Jayani, Sharlene forgot her earlier annoyance with her.
"I suppose the child has some use..." she thought as she hurried to open the door and welcome Ms. Davidson to their orphanage.
Standing outside the porch of Rosemary Orphanage for Young Girls, Arielle took a deep breath. Her jet-black curls swayed as a breeze brought in the smell of spicy dhal curry from a nearby opened window.
The big whitewashed old brick and mortar building looked inviting and there were birds perched on a nearby tree, singing in harmony. Butterflies fluttered to and fro in the wide front lawn that needed a bit of mowing. The sun was shining bright in the cloudless sky and Arielle felt her skin burn a little. She inherited her mother's rather fair skin that was prone to sun burn. Arielle shielded her dark eyes from the glare as she looked around her and took another deep breath. Rosemary was, by far, the least formidable institution she'd been to, yet it always made her a little nervous before she entered into any orphanage. Past memories sometimes threatened to flood in and take control of her emotions. As the bronze doorknob turned, Arielle took another deep breath; she was in the middle of muttering her usual power verse to herself: "I can do all things through..." when she was cut off by the loud exclamation of her name.
"Ms. Arielle Davidson!!! Welcome to Rosemary's!!!", Sharlene greeted her with a cheery smile. Suddenly a bouquet of lilies and chrysanthemums thrown in together, blocked Arielle's vision of Sharlene's pearly whites.
The scent of the flowers was a little overwhelming to her at that moment.
"The children gathered them this morning for you. They're so excited to see you!"
"Oh! How delightful! I love lilies!" Arielle remarked as she stepped into the brightly lit hallway, trying to keep her nerves under control.
"They're in the auditorium," Sharlene giggled excitedly. "Auditorium? Whatever for? I thought we're meeting in the living room like usual?"
"No, Ms. Davidson! This is the first Christmas you're celebrating with us, so the children put together a small performance for you. They wanted to show you how grateful we are to your continued support for our establishment".
Arielle's face lit up.
"Really? What are they performing?"
"It's a surprise!" Sharlene grinned as she led Arielle to the auditorium.
The auditorium was small and whitewashed, like rest of the building, with some wooden chairs lined up to face a small wooden stage. Usually the room was plain and void of any excitement but the children – surely under the influence of Sharlene, no doubt, had outdone themselves with the Christmas decorations.
There was a Christmas tree made out of jam jars wrapped in green tissue paper, lit up by tiny candles placed inside. There were fairy lights, balloons and various colourful Christmas drawings adorning the wall. The atmosphere was definitely festive.
The children started singing Christmas carols as her gaze stopped at the stage. Sharlene led her to a nearby wooden chair and Arielle settled into be enthralled by the sweet harmony of this little choir.
"Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the new born King..." they finished. Sharlene stepped onto the stage to make an announcement.
"Now, Ms. Davidson, allow me to present a duet of your song 'Don't Give Up' by Sarah and the newest addition to our little family: Jayani!"
All the children clapped along with Arielle who was excited to see how these two children would sing one of the very first songs she released.
Sarah, dressed in a beautiful baby blue chiffon dress climbed up the stage, with her blonde hair neatly tied by a blue ribbon. A shorter girl who was hiding her face with her hands followed her.
'So that's Jayani...' Arielle thought as she observed the little girl in pink.
She shuffled next to Sarah, clearly uncomfortable. "Will she be okay?" Arielle whispered to Sharlene who came and stood next to her after the announcement.
"I'm actually not sure... Jayani's got a bit of a history," Sharlene whispered back.
Her curiosity rising, Arielle focused on Jayani.
Sarah had started to sing and during the chorus as Jayani joined in, Arielle was pleasantly surprised by Jayani's voice – it sounded as pure as the sound of a ringing bell... clear and resounding.
Jayani still had one hand covering her face as she sang with Sarah.
The music shifted to the second set of verse, which was to be sung by Jayani. Arielle leaned in with anticipation but was disappointed when Jayani made no sound. Her cue came and went and Sarah, looking alarmed, glanced at Sharlene and then nudged Jayani who seemed frozen on stage.
"Sharlene, stop the music! It was a lovely performance... but I think the children are too tired..." Arielle tried to ease the situation.
Suddenly Jayani dashed out of the stage with a loud wail.
"Here she goes again," Sharlene muttered.
"What's that?" Arielle asked.
"Jayani... She's a bit different"
"Clearly! She's an amazing singer! Her voice is so clear and pure... like an angel!" Arielle gushed in admiration.
"That's not what I meant," Sharlene clarified. "Jayani was bullied by some older children at the orphanage she was at before. She tried to run away and was transferred to ours by her concerned guardians."
"Oh really?" Arielle was surprised to hear this about Jayani. She was short, but she looked healthy and was pretty with her dark curly hair.
"Why was she bullied? She seems normal to me..."
"Some of the older children got jealous of her ability to sing. They used to have annual musicals and Jayani kept getting the lead roles. That didn't sit well with some of them so they humiliated her by throwing rotten eggs at her during one of the musicals and taunting her ever since."
"Oh! The poor child!" Arielle felt deeply for Jayani. "She must have felt so hurt!"
Arielle suppressed flash backs from her own past that threatened to resurface.
"Would you mind if I talk to her?" Arielle asked.
"Sure. You can try... but Ms. Davidson, I don't think you'll get through to her... I mean, I know you're used to getting things your way, but this kid... she's as stubborn as a mule".
"Let me try... I can relate to her."
"But Ms. Davidson... you? How?" Sharlene was confused. "You're the daughter of Mr. David Harold Rodrigo – the wealthiest man in the country after the President and Prime Minister! I've heard that you were privately tutored and home-schooled without ever going to a public school... how could you possibly understand Jayani's pain?"
"Fine..." Sharlene relented "She's probably in the backyard swing. That's her usual hideout."
"Thanks," Arielle said hurriedly as she quickly headed towards the door.
Watching Ms. Davidson leave, Sharlene wondered out loud, "There must be more to her past than we know." Unknown to Sharlene, Sarah had been listening to the whole conversation and chimed in, "You're not going to go and eavesdrop now are you Ms. Sharlene?"
Sharlene looked shocked, even though the idea did cross her mind, and she chided Sarah for being silly and walked her to her room – just to make sure 'she' wouldn't eavesdrop.
"I hope it goes well..." Sharlene sighed, looking out at the backyard where she could barely see the figures of Jayani and Arielle.
It was very pretty – the butterfly... with colourful red and black wings, fluttering about the backyard, flying without a care in the world from one flower bed to the next. The sweet aroma of the flowers clearly attracted the butterfly.
Jayani looked at it longingly as she sat alone on the metal swing.
The backyard is the only bit of private space found in the orphanage. It's closed off from the outside world by a brick wall that the painters had not bothered to white wash like the rest of the orphanage. It was where the laundry was generally hung in the mornings and no one came there except when it was time to tend to the flowerbeds.
The swing creaked as Jayani leaned forward. It was an old, rusty swing that the other girls generally avoided out of fear of breaking it or falling off and hurting themselves. Patches of grass and weeds grew around it so Jayani wasn't scared. She knew the grass would cushion her fall.
Another butterfly fluttered into her view. This one was yellow with black and white spots adorning its wings. It hovered a little before settling on a flower.
"Why can't I be free like them?" she sighed, wiping away the tears that rolled down her cheeks.
'If I could only stop seeing them staring,' she thought as she recalled – again – the familiar scene that haunted her, not only in her dreams but also in reality.
Whenever Jayani stood in front of a large audience, the same scene began to play in front of her eyes.
"Will it ever stop?" she sighed sadly.
"Will what, ever stop?" a voice behind her asked. Jayani stood up straight, getting off the swing hurriedly to face the voice. She was startled to see Ms. Arielle before her. She thought it was one of the older girls, coming to taunt her like all the others at the previous orphanage.
"Are you okay?" Ms. Arielle asked her kindly, realizing that she had startled Jayani.
'She's beautiful; much more beautiful in person than on TV,' Jayani thought as she took in the sight of Ms. Arielle Davidson.
Earlier, on stage, Jayani was too panicked to notice anyone. It took all her strength to sing along with the others.
'Ms. Arielle is not beautiful in the supermodel way' Jayani thought. She's not thin like them with their bony faces. There's just something about her that makes her beautiful. It's almost like there's a glow that makes her shine. Jayani couldn't really understand it.
"Jayani?" Ms. Arielle's voice cut into her thoughts.
"Yes, Ms. Arielle?"
"I was asking if you were okay?"
Jayani looked down at her feet and shrugged, not knowing what to say. She decided to play with a pebble near her toe.
Ms. Arielle waited a little, giving time for Jayani to talk. She kept playing with the pebble.
"Hey, if you'd like to talk to someone, I'm good at listening," Ms. Arielle spoke gently and her voice soothed Jayani.
Finally, Jayani looked up, losing interest in the pebble.
"It doesn't matter. You probably have better things to do, Ms. Arielle. Besides, you wouldn't understand. No one does." Jayani struggled to hold back her tears.
"You won't! I've talked to some grownups... they all say they understand but, in the end, they all just get angry with me when I can't perform like they want me to! I'm useless! I wish I was never born!" Jayani started sobbing.
That's when something quite out of the ordinary happened! To Jayani's surprise, Ms. Arielle gathered her into a warm hug.
In her shock, Jayani stopped crying.
"You hugged me!"
"Shouldn't I have? Wait! Don't tell me you hate hugs!"
"No..." Jayani mumbled, suddenly feeling very shy. "It's not that I hate hugs..."
"It's just no one's actually given me a hug before!" "Ever?" Ms. Arielle looked shocked.
"Ever..." Jayani whispered looking down. "Do you really want me to tell you?" she asked Ms. Arielle.
"Yes, I do Jayani. I want to know what's keeping you from singing with that beautiful voice you have."
"You think my voice is beautiful?"
"Just like an angel's, I'm sure! It's definitely a God given gift." Jayani's face darkened. "God? Is there really a God?"
"Jayani! Of course there is! Why would you think otherwise?" "If... If God were real... then he must hate me," Jayani whispered, looking at her feet again.
"Now, why would you say that Jayani? God doesn't hate you. God loves you! He sent Jesus to die on the cross to save you. That's what Christmas and all those carols you sang were all about!"
Anger suddenly flared up in her and Jayani couldn't help bursting out, "If he came to save me, then why didn't he save me from those bullies?"
"The ones who threw rotten eggs at you?" Arielle asked her gently.
"How do you...?"
"Ms Sharlene told me because I was worried about you."
"So you know the reason then."
"I know what happened that time, but I don't know what's keeping you from singing on stage Jayani."
"It's just... I keep seeing them! Every time I'm in front of a crowd or an audience, I see their eyes – full of hatred, their mouths, sneering at me and taunting me... throwing those rotten eggs straight at me. It paralysed me! I couldn't move let alone sing!"
"You're afraid it will happen again?"
"Yeah. I guess."
"It won't! Not everyone's like them. You just have to trust your new audience and push those mean bullies out of your mind. They won over you that day on stage... but don't let them win in your mind too!"
"I wish I was like you Ms. Arielle! You're confident and brave. You're not scared of all those people."
"Well actually, there was a time I was just like you: shy, timid and very afraid".
"What? Ms. Arielle – You?"
"Yeah!!" Looking around to make sure no one else is listening, Ms. Arielle leaned forward and whispered, "If you promise not to tell anyone, I'll tell you all about it... You see... I wasn't always called Arielle."
Jayani was very excited. This was the first time someone was sharing a secret with her and it was not just anyone – it was this amazing person, Ms. Arielle! She felt honoured and solemnly reassured Ms. Arielle: "I promise!"
"So, this is my story..." Ms. Arielle started.