Stella stumbled down the hallway as she tried to keep up with the nurse who led her to the library at the far end of the cream colored bungalow. Her face was bruised and her left cheek, swollen. She tried hard to steady herself, but her vision was blurred from crying and her head was pounding from the impact of the blows. She knew she needed help and prayed that she had made the right decision by coming here. At the end of the long corridor, the nurse rapped lightly on the door, before opening it.
‘She has been expecting you,’ she affirmed with a knowing nod as she ushered the visitor in.
As Stella stepped through the door of the huge library, the slim figure of a woman in the corner shifted. The aged woman was well in her nineties. Her hoary hair and wrinkled skin were her defining beauty and she turned around with light, slow steps.
‘Edede,’ Stella said, addressing the woman as ‘grandmother’ in her native tongue. Muttering a word of greeting, she stepped closer to help her to a cushioned seat.
‘I am glad you have come,’ the old woman spoke out, her voice low and husky. ‘I got your message and it is good to meet you in person.’
As the old woman reclined into the chair, Stella temporarily forgot her pain and observed her in awe. It was their first meeting, but she almost felt like they were already friends. A portrait of the old woman in her youthful days had, until recently, hung in Stella’s living room. Who would have believed that this legend was still alive? Though her skin was lusterless, those sharp eyes had not lost their sparkle and seemed to pierce right through Stella’s soul.
Edede peered up at her visitor, a troubled look on her face. ‘Tell me child, what is this all about?’
Feeling at her wits end, Stella sighed, unsure of where to begin. Should she start by telling how Orobosa had descended on her earlier that day? Or should she go back to happier days when her future seemed so promising, with the sky as her stepping stone? A sharp pain ripped through her forehead and she opted for the former.
‘This is final straw!’ she spat out bitterly. ‘I will never go back to him. Never!’
Slowly, the woman reached out and touched the bruise on her cheek. ‘Did he do this to you?’
Stella winced and shrank back, as she nodded in reply. ‘I curse the day I first laid my eyes on him; that day at the beauty pageant.’
‘Ah, the pageant,’ the old woman commented. ‘It holds mixed sentiments for all of us, doesn’t it?’
Stella shrugged. ‘Yes. It was meant to be a special occasion but I will always remember it with regret.’
It was the day fate had smiled on her, but ironically, it was also the day the one man she now dreaded most came into her life. That had been almost four years ago but memories of that day would forever haunt her...
The excitement in the air was thick. That year’s beauty pageant was different from all the rest. The contest had been running successfully for ten years and Orobosa; the chief host, had declared a mega anniversary celebration with a jumbo prize for that year’s winner. The event was his first public appearance since assuming office as the newly elected Minister of Culture and Tourism and he was eager to make a grand entrance. Celebrities of the highest caliber had arrived from near and far to grace the occasion. With Orobosa seated in the front row and the dignitaries surrounding him to the left and to the right, the master of ceremonies declared the evening open. The stage lit up with breathtaking performances by the local dance troupes. From waist twisting choreography to acrobats who threatened to tear through the high ceilings, they offered the audience an evening of hair-raising fun.
But underneath all the glamour and pageantry, a fierce battle raged as the beauty contestants formed a long winding line backstage and warmed up for their entrance. Only one special lady would win the highly coveted title of ‘beauty queen’ with meager consolation prizes offered to the runners-up. Coming in second was not an enviable position and none of the girls desired it. It was either first place or nothing at all. After days of interviews, talent hunts and swimsuit displays, the weeklong event had peaked to its grand finale.
A young man slipped in through the back door. Not minding his obscure presence, he crept towards one of the ladies at the back of the line and gave her a playful pinch.
Stella turned around in surprise. ‘Edwin, how did you get in here?’ she exclaimed. ‘No one is allowed backstage!’
‘I know. But I just had to see you and let you know that I will be cheering you on from the crowd.’
She looked around nervously. ‘Ok, ok thanks. Just go please before someone discovers you.’
He squeezed her hand and leaned forward. ‘I love you Stella,’ he whispered into her ear. ‘I have a surprise waiting for you when all this is over.’
Before she could reply, he turned around, slipped through the curtains and was gone. The dance troupes ended their performance and the beauty contestants took over the show. Looking splendid in an alluring array of traditional evening wear, they glided unto the stage with a gracefulness that propelled the audience to new heights of exuberance. Each one had only a few minutes to step to the front, make a statement and retreat to the background. And make a statement they did, in this competitive frenzy. Strutting the runway in their embroidered regalia, each model put her best foot forward in this fight for fame that could make her a star forever.
Orobosa sat beneath the dancing lights in his flowing robes, his face was stern and his forehead creased in a frown. He was not an easy man to impress and not even the raw beauty talent on display could squeeze a smile from him. The ladies were stylish, classy and full of poise and the audience loved them. But it was important that they impressed Orobosa more than anyone else. The prize money came from the state treasury and although there were two other judges, he was the informal leader of the pack; it was really he who decided on the winner. All it took was a whisper across the judges’ table on who to eliminate, and the others took his cue.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ the host’s voice boomed over the microphone. ‘All the contestants have been great, haven’t they?’
The audience cheered in agreement as the judges deliberated and made their pronouncements. The slow and painful elimination process began and one by one the ladies were voted off. They did their last walk across the runway and off the stage until Stella and Mercy were the last two standing. As she stood at the centre of the stage, Stella thought her legs would give way, not from the pain of exertion, but from nervous anticipation, unable to believe she had made it this far. She cast a glance in the Minister’s direction. She thought she saw a faint smile of approval escape his lips when she made her entrance, but she was not too sure. Right now, she was sure of only one thing; she needed this prize. Preparation towards this day had been intense. Filled with grueling rehearsals to perfect her strut on the catwalk as well as catfights with the other girls, boot camp had left her feeling more feline than human. Much more, she had scraped out her last savings to enter this contest, even spending extra hours at the studio where she worked as a fashion designer. She had nothing left to her name. Despite the fashion boom in the country, many of the grassroots designers were struggling to survive and Stella was one of such. This year’s beauty pageant could be her big break.
Unconsciously, she squeezed Mercy’s hand, and waited with bated breath for a miracle. Although each one was the other’s obstacle to the grand prize, they held hands in a show of support as they waited for the final verdict.
‘By a unanimous decision,’ the host continued. ‘Our new beauty queen is...’ he took a tantalizingly long pause, before making the announcement.
At first, both ladies were not sure if they heard right. But when the outgoing queen came forward, lifted the crown from her head and placed it on the new queen’s, they knew their ears had not deceived them. Mercy slowly let go of her opponent’s hand and slipped away, leaving Stella on the stage. Congratulatory cheers filled the air and a spray of confetti was let loose across the podium.
‘Well done,’ the Minister declared, stepping onto the podium. ‘You were brilliant.’
Stella’s wobbly knees suddenly regained strength. She had won! With a shout of joy, she stepped forward to shake Orobosa’s outstretched hand. His look of admiration filled her with pride and her mind went to the huge prize that he would award her the following evening amid a fine feast, attended only by the city’s elite.
Retreating backstage, Stella joined the other ladies as they got changed, tidied up and began the process of removing their makeup. In between accepting hugs and handshakes, she noticed Mercy pass by through the reflection in her mirror. She rose up quickly and called her name. Mercy’s face tightened in a frown when she saw the lady who had just defeated her approaching. Stella knew she should not gloat, but it would not hurt to rub it in just a little bit.
‘Where on earth have you been hiding?’ she asked. ‘Everyone has come to congratulate me, except you!’
Mercy cleared her throat. ‘Congratulations,’ she replied dryly. ‘Yours was a well deserved victory.’
With a sharp intake of breath, she stepped away in an attempt to continue her journey to the restroom, but Stella blocked her way.
‘To be honest, I was not quite sure what to expect,’ she continued with a feigned sense of modesty. ‘I must admit you gave me quite a run for my money on that stage. But the position of first runner-up is quite enviable too. Maybe we could have lunch together sometime and we could talk about where you slipped.’
Her words were as though someone was rubbing salt on freshly inflicted battle wounds. She sensed Mercy was about to cry as she brushed past and hurried away.
‘You should not taunt her like that,’ a voice chided her gently from behind.
She swung around to face the contest mentor, who quickly ushered her out again for brief interviews, numerous snap shots and an after-party. When the fanfare finally died down, Stella found Edwin waiting for her. She had not seen him since he sneaked backstage earlier in the evening. Breaking into a smile, she rushed into his open arms.
‘Did you see me win?’ she exclaimed. ‘I had my heart set on this and I won! Dreams do come true, don’t they?’
‘Yes they do,’ he affirmed. ‘And you are a star,’ he stared into her eyes. ‘My star.’
She smiled. ‘Let us get out of here,’ she said. ‘It has been a long day. I am tired and I just want to go home.’
He shook his head. ‘The evening is not yet over. I told you I had a big surprise.’
She looked at him curiously, still bubbling with happiness. Could the evening get any more exciting than this? Edwin took her hand in his. His palms were sweaty and the look on his face reflected the anxious beating of his heart.
‘Honey, what is it?’ Stella asked.
‘I know you have already had so much excitement for one day,’ he said. ‘But there is one more thing I want to ask you before we go. Will you be my wife?’
Her eyes widened. ‘Are you serious?’
She and Edwin had dated for three years so the proposal did not really take her by surprise. They met when she took up her new job. He owned the fashion studio right next to the one where she was in training. At first it seemed that their shared love for fashion designing was what drew them together, but with time it became obvious that there was a deeper attraction. Edwin’s friends teased him endlessly about the seamstress next door but he did not care. In fact the more they clowned, the more serious he got with her. Now, he was proving to the whole world how deeply hooked he was. Stella had felt his proposal coming for a while, but now, she hesitated for a few seconds before shaking her head.
‘I can’t marry you, Edwin.’ She paused and added. ‘It is not allowed. Not until after my reign.’
‘I will wait for you then,’ he said. ‘When the year is over, promise me you will marry me and make me the happiest man alive.’
She looked at him and her heart leapt. This was certainly a delightful wrap up to the evening; as though the icing was being spread on the cake. Edwin was not a self made man. In fact, he was yet to establish a name for himself in the fashion world. But he worked hard and she knew he loved her. Over time, she too had nurtured feelings of her own, for this spirited young man. So, after a brief moment of reflection, she let out a wide smile and nodded vigorously.
‘Okay, honey,’ she replied. ‘After my reign, of course I will marry you.’
The room grew silent as Stella paused and turned her eyes upwards to the plastered ceiling. ‘And so, we were married a year and half later at a small and simple church ceremony,’ she concluded.
‘Wow,’ Edede declared, as the young lady fell silent. ‘So, I guess double congratulations were in order for you.’
The younger lady shook her head. ‘Do not congratulate me,’ she said with a sigh. ‘That was the beginning of my woes.’
‘But why?’ Edede looked puzzled. ‘It sounds to me like you had the whole world at your feet and a man who loved you very much.’
‘At the time, I did,’ Stella replied. ‘But that was four years ago and I do not feel beautiful anymore. I feel wretched and broken on the inside.’
The woman pointed to the bruise on Stella’s face. ‘Shouldn’t we get that treated?’
She reached for the bell on the side table to summon the nurse but Stella stopped her.
‘Not just yet,’ the younger lady pleaded. The pain was tearing at her temples but her curiosity was more intense. ‘You said earlier that the pageant holds mixed sentiments for you as well. Tell me why.’
Before Edede could reply, the large mahogany door of the library swung open and the nurse, who had welcomed Stella, stepped in and murmured a faint greeting. Both women watched as she moved around the room, dimming the lights and drawing the curtains. Finally, she came to help Edede to her feet, at the same time nudging their guest.
‘It has been a long day,’ she said. ‘Now it is time for Edede to have dinner and retire to her room.’
Stella wished she could sit and talk with the old woman a little longer, but the nurse would not hear of it.
‘It is getting late. Maybe you could come back tomorrow,’ she suggested.
Tenderly touching her bruised cheek, Stella hesitated. She did not want to leave. She did not want to return home. Not to that brute.
‘Do you think I could stay the night, then?’ she pleaded. ‘I won’t be any trouble, I promise.’
‘I am sure it can be arranged.’ Edede replied warmly as the nurse led her away. ‘And could you take a look at the bruises on her face? We got so caught up in our discussion that we forgot all about that.’
The nurse nodded. ‘Come with me,’ she instructed. ‘I will have someone treat you while I get a room ready.’
She had not come with a change of clothing so Stella had no choice but to go to bed in what she had on. But that was the least of her worries. She had too much to think about right now. The issue of a nightwear was a molehill compared to the mountain of concerns that stood before her. She was sure that back home, she would not be missed. Her husband probably would not bother to try and find her. That was if he too came home that night. She tossed and turned in the queen- size bed, feeling restless but grateful for the pain-killers the nurse had given her that relaxed the muscles in her head. The guest room was congested and unfamiliar but it held more peace than her bedroom at home.
After a few hours of painful recollection, her mind finally went blank and she drifted off to sleep in the dark, quiet guest room of Edede’s cream colored bungalow. Stella hugged her pillow and succumbed to a deep slumber, hoping that in this new haven, she would be able to sleep her troubles away.