Daylight streamed into the room. Stella opened her eyes to see Edede sitting by the bed; humming softly to herself, while the nurse opened the windows to let in the fresh morning breeze. She greeted her hosts and stretched herself, yawning as she did so.
‘How are you this morning?’ Edede asked.
‘Renewed,’ Stella declared. There was no better word to describe the way she felt. It was the first time in a long while that she had slept through the whole night at a stretch. Her eyes were still bloodshot from crying so hard the day before. The pain in her body had reduced to a throbbing sensation, but the emotional hurt from the previous day’s experience was still fresh.
‘You are up already?’ she asked.
‘I always rise before the sun,’ the old woman commented. ‘And you have slept the entire morning away.’
Mumbling apologetically, Stella got up and began to straighten out the bedspread.
‘Edede, is there a fountain of youthfulness from which you drink? You are close to a century old, yet you are still so full of life.’
The old woman laughed and tapped her guest softly on the back. ‘Get ready and come out for breakfast,’ she instructed. ‘Hurry up. We must make the most of today because the time is short.’
The steaming hot moin-moin and accompanying thick white pap were delicious. Edede sat at the head of the table while her guest sat adjacent to her.
‘So tell me,’ the old woman said. ‘How did it all start to fall apart?’
Stella threw two lumps of sugar into the bowl of pap and stirred it gently. Her reign as a beauty queen had been a memorable one. She travelled to exotic locations, stayed in luxurious hotels and rubbed shoulders with some of the big names in society. She was penning her name in the sands of time as a cultural philanthropist with her ‘indigenous arts and crafts’ advocacy project. Most of all, she had struck out on her own with ‘Stellar fashion house’; her readymade clothing line. With her winnings from the contest, she set up a new studio close to the city center, where she launched her new clothing collection. She had recruited Edwin’s help to set up the business, given his wide experience in the fashion industry and at first, she was grateful for his support. Throughout the year of her reign, they kept their engagement a secret until she handed down the crown and he put a wedding ring on her finger.
But now married, Stella felt the void that had been inside her before she emerged beauty queen, slowly resurfacing. Her twelve months of fame was over. As she stood in the middle of her studio each morning, she watched people breeze past on their way to work and cars crawl through the busy street, caught in traffic. But amid all that activity no one seemed to take notice of her. The affluence that she saw every time she looked out of the window seemed to be deliberately evading her. Her outfits were nice and stylish, but patronage was low and a huge feeling of discontentment was eating away at her. Where were all the fans who had cheered her on so enthusiastically during the pageant? She wondered. Had they forgotten her so easily? Even her advocacy project seemed to have stagnated and the endorsement deals from the large multinational companies were not coming in as quickly as they had been at the beginning. There was, after all, a new beauty queen in town and the old one was fizzling out.
Dusk was descending. She placed the newly completed ankara gown on the mannequin and nodded in satisfaction. It looked great. As she moved the dummy closer to the front window so passersby could get a better view, Arese burst into her shop.
‘That is beautiful,’ she remarked, pointing at the recently clad mannequin.
Stella nodded. ‘I know. Now, I just wish the public would take notice.’
‘They will eventually,’ her friend comforted her. ‘But you better learn to shine your eyes.’ She glanced at her watch. ‘Let’s go. Have you forgotten we agreed to have dinner together today and you are paying?’
It was yet another unfulfilling day. With a loud sigh, Stella ordered her assistant to tidy the shop and lock up while she and Arese hurried out into the busy streets. The eatery down the road was peaceful and inviting. They settled in a corner of the dining area and ordered farmer’s pottage and roasted chicken wings. Stella ate slowly, her mind consumed with how tight business had become.
Arese watched her. She could see that Stella was growing restless. Her friend needed some sort of reinvention and right now, there was only one person Arese could think of who could give her that big leap.
‘That Orobosa minister has been busy,’ Arese said. ‘He has a lot planned at his bureau this year and I hear there are a few contracts up for grabs.’ She leaned forward. ‘Why don’t you go and see him? He met you briefly during last year’s pageant, but I think you made an impression on him. I am sure he will not forget your face so easily.’
‘But I am an ex-queen; no longer the reigning one. How will I convince him to help me out?’
Pausing to think for only a little while, Arese threw her hands up. ‘That should be easy!’ she exclaimed. ‘A little flattery should do the trick. Just tell him how you were one of his strongest supporters when he was running for office and what a wonderful Minister you think he is. Then when his ego is satiated, you present your request to him.’
‘Are you sure I should manipulate him like that?’
Her friend laughed. ‘It is called feminine power,’ she teased. ‘Where is yours?’
Stella looked doubtful. ‘I should talk to Edwin about it first.’
‘Leave your husband out of this. He does not know how to lobby for such things.’ Arese replied with a shrug. ‘You are doing this for the two of you and he will be grateful for it afterwards. Quick, finish your food and let us plan this thing very well.’
The plan was in motion. As soon as Orobosa stepped out of the press briefing with his entourage, Stella was waiting. With strong determination, she lurched forward and headed straight towards him. The aides shouted an order for her to back off.
‘Stop right there, young lady!’ they ordered. ‘Move out of the way!’
Stella did not stop. It was now or never. In the last one month, she had tried several times to book an appointment with the Minister, all to no avail. This was her only opportunity. Breaking through the protocol officers who had formed a garrison around Orobosa, she called out to him.
‘Sir, I have a proposal here for you to consider.’
As the aide attempted to push her aside, she shoved a soft paper file into the Minister’s hand and with a quick smile, slipped away.
Orobosa was not sure what had just happened. He had caught a glimpse of a beautiful woman smiling at him, heard a sweet voice and then the lady was gone and he was left with something in his hands.
‘Shall I take that, sir?’ his aide asked, stretching out his hand to relieve him of the document.
The Minister shook his head. ‘Who was that?’ he demanded.
‘I don’t know sir,’ the aide answered meekly.
‘Go and fetch her,’ Orobosa instructed. ‘Bring her back here at once.’
The entourage came to a halt while the aide hurried off to bring back the intruder. Stella was already some distance ahead when he caught her by the arm and insisted she follow him back to where Orobosa was waiting.
‘What is this?’ the Minister demanded, holding up the file.
If she felt nervous or afraid, Stella did not show it. She had expected Orobosa would not let her get off so easily. Smiling sweetly, she began her carefully rehearsed line. ‘Sir, don’t you remember me? I am last year’s beauty pageant winner?’
He squinted and peered at her, a look of recognition suddenly crossing his face. ‘Stella, right?’
Her smile widened. ‘Of course!’
‘You have changed quite a bit,’ he observed. ‘You have added weight...Just a bit,’ he added hastily, noticing her frown. ‘But I like the extra flesh. It makes you look more like...you know, a woman.’
Stella cleared her throat. ‘Sir, I want you to know that I am also your biggest fan. I have followed your work ever since you resumed office. You are a groundbreaker, whom young, aspiring designers like myself would love to emulate.’ She pointed to the file. ‘I hope to contribute my own quota to our culture and tourism industry, but only with your kind approval.’
‘And what is written in these pages?’ he queried.
‘Sir, the file contains designs from my ready-made collection, with a humble request for your financial backing.’ Her tone was earnest but not desperate. ‘All I ask is that you take a look.’
His face was stern and it looked as if he was going to scold her for wasting his time. Then suddenly with a slight nod, he pursed his lips together, handed the file to his escort and walked on.
Inside the Minister’s air conditioned office, Stella sat on the edge of her seat, beaming with pride. She had not expected to be summoned so quickly, if at all. For some nights now, she went to bed wondering at the silence from the Minister’s end and convinced that her catalogue had been tossed into the dustbin. Now, here she was, sitting before him. That was not too difficult, she thought to herself. Despite the fact that the aide had shoved her that first afternoon and today, she had waited two hours at the reception before being allowed in, it was proving to be worth all the stress. All that remained now was for Orobosa to consider her request favorably.
Flipping unenthusiastically through the colorful catalogue which the young lady had shoved into her boss’s hands, Ruth, Orobosa’s personal assistant, remained tight faced. She could not deny that Stella was gifted but she was put off by her brashness and the aggressive way she had pushed for this meeting. Her boss however, seemed to be on a different plane. The contents of the catalogue might be beautiful but Orobosa thought Stella was a lovelier sight. With the way his eyes kept wandering over to hers, it was obvious he was more fascinated by her than by her work. He cleared his throat.
His assistant looked up. ‘Sir?’
‘Could you excuse us?’
It was not a request. It was an order. Without another word, Ruth picked up the catalogue and headed out. Stella wondered what she and Orobosa were to discuss if Ruth took her proposal away. But she would appear too outspoken if she asked the assistant to leave the catalogue behind, so she kept quiet. The door shut and an awkward silence permeated the room.
‘What is it, sir?’ Stella asked eventually.
She summed up a bit of courage. ‘Why do you stare at me like that?’
‘You are a beautiful woman,’ he declared.
Obviously. That is why I won the pageant in the first place. Can we get back to the business at hand?
‘And a woman of great talent too,’ he added. ‘I see so much intensity in your eyes.’
In my eyes? She wondered. You are meant to be looking at my collection not into my eyes.
‘I thought maybe you could ...’ she began to state aloud, but her voice trailed off. She had meant to flatter him a little bit, as Arese advised; just to get him to approve her request. But he seemed flattered enough with her just sitting there. More flattered than she had bargained for.
Orobosa kept his gaze on her. ‘Do you know that all eyes are on the Ministry of Culture and Tourism right now?’ he remarked. ‘We are working on promoting our local culture like we have never done it before.’
He paused and smiled as though congratulating himself on his ingenuity. Stella heaved a sigh of relief that he seemed to have snapped out of his spell and brought the conversation back on course.
‘That is right down my alley,’ she said. ‘Do you think I could fit anywhere in your plans?’ She paused for a while and then added. ‘I am determined to pattern my life after a successful man like you.’
His head swelled with pride at her compliment. He could easily see her fitting into his plans. ‘I like you. And in all fairness, you are a landmark beauty queen. After all, you won the tenth pageant so you deserve better than what you got.’ He thought for a while. ‘I can offer you much more than one little contract. We have so much going on right now. My steering committee has already begun to explore avenues to showcase various aspects of our traditional culture to the outside world. I am sure you would love to be a part of that.’
‘I would sir,’ she affirmed. ‘Our local fashion industry is an inherent goldmine which you could really exploit. I am sure Edwin and I can come up with some great ideas on how we can go about this.’
She nodded. ‘Edwin is my husband. He also helps me manage my fashion studio and we will both be grateful for your kind patronage.’
Orobosa’s eyes narrowed. ‘You are married?’
Stella looked confused. Was that wrong? ‘Um... yes sir, I got married a year after the pageant.’
Orobosa slowly shook his head. Stella’s hand went subconsciously to her wedding ring and she fiddled with it nervously. The Minister suddenly brightened up as a thought occurred to him.
‘Listen, why don’t you join me at the tennis mainland club this Saturday? There is a picnic taking place there with a live band playing high-life music and lots to eat and drink. You and Edward will be my guests.’
‘Edwin,’ she corrected. ‘His name is Edwin.’
‘Oh yeah. Well, I am sure you will both love the outdoors. We will play a game or two of tennis then we can chat afterwards over a few drinks.’
Stella liked the sound of that. It sounded so classy and she accepted the invitation on behalf of herself and her husband.
‘Great,’ Orobosa looked pleased. ‘Saturday by 1p.m. You guys know how to get to the mainland club, don’t you? Tell Edward I am looking forward to meeting him.’
She did not bother to correct him again.
Edwin was not keen. He was not interested in hobnobbing with any politicians, even though Stella wittily explained that the invitation had come as a surprise. With an uncertain look on her face, she said she figured that the Bureau of Culture and Tourism must have somehow got hold of one of her catalogues and now wanted to employ her services. But, she added, it was a good development because the tennis club would be a great place to meet potential customers.
‘I don’t like large gatherings,’ Edwin objected.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ she said. ‘You came to my beauty pageant and you loved it.’
‘Only because you were there,’ he pointed out.
‘Well, I will be there again this time. We are going to the picnic together, aren’t we?’
He shook his head. ‘I am not sure I want to go. I won’t really have anyone to talk to and I will be bored.’
‘Then I will go alone. For me, this is work and not pleasure and considering the way business has not been moving, it is an opportunity I would not want to miss.’
She could not find the stamina to persuade him. Besides she would have less explaining to do if Edwin did not get to meet Orobosa after all.
The tennis club was rather empty, much to Stella’s surprise. The picnic, Orobosa explained, had been cancelled. But they would still enjoy a nice afternoon with a colleague of his and his lady friend.
‘So where is your hubby?’ he asked.
‘He could not make it.’ She muttered an excuse.
‘Oh! Good, good.’
She did not ask why that was a good thing. They played a game of doubles; the first round was a battle of the sexes. Orobosa and his friend enjoyed beating their amateur lady competitors who were no match for their years of experience in the sport. Showing no mercy, the men let out loud guffaws as the ladies dove around the court in a frantic attempt to retrieve the balls being served to them. Then they switched sides and Stella went to join Orobosa on his side of the court.
‘Actually I wanted to talk to you about this whole sponsorship thing,’ he said, as they warmed up for another game.
He leaned forward and began whispering in her ear. Taken aback by this brazen gesture, she looked around nervously to see if anyone was watching. The couple on the other side of the tennis court was engrossed in their own discussion and did not seem to mind them.
‘I told you I like you,’ Orobosa continued. ‘And your clothing collection, of course. You have the mark of a true fashionista. I have given this a lot of thought. Given your track record in culture advocacy, I want you to work with my bureau as our spokeswoman. I will sign you up for a one year contract; renewable based on your performance.’
‘Really?’ That sounded too good to be true and Stella smiled in elation.
‘Really!’ he affirmed. ‘It will be a great platform for you to get the various projects you started during your reign, up and running again. Quite an exciting ride, don’t you think?’ He paused. ‘But...’
She pulled back a bit at the unexpected ‘but’, as he proceeded to explain the rudiments of his proposed deal.
‘I am taking over the management of your fashion house immediately. Edward is out.’
For a minute, Stella’s excitement dampened. ’But sir, Edwin and I work as a team. I can’t do this without him.’
‘This is business,’ he replied. ‘We can’t be sentimental about it. If I sign you up for this deal, my patronage has to be total. You will be working solely under my bureau.’ He leaned forward and again whispered into her ear. ‘I want you to free your mind and think of the possibilities that lie ahead of you. This is your moment of glory. It is your time. Your year as a beauty queen will be nothing compared to what lies ahead.’
It certainly seemed like a juicy offer and would put her several steps ahead of where she was now. And that was what she wanted, wasn’t it? Yet, Stella’s expression changed from elation to disappointment. Edwin would not be happy to hear he was being sidelined. In a silent plea, she begged Orobosa for leniency. But he only shrugged and brushed away her protest.
‘Ruth will work closely with you to ensure your work meets up with our standards.’ He went on, as though he considered the matter settled. ‘Of course we will invest in everything necessary to ensure it does. I won’t spare any resources to make you the best. Are you ready for this?’ he urged.
Stella hesitated. Maybe she should talk this over with Edwin first. If she was going to drop him; as far as managing her business was concerned, he at least deserved to know before the deal was sealed. But Orobosa wanted an answer right away and Stella had fought hard for this opportunity. If she let it pass, it might not come her way again. In a final decision, she exhaled deeply and smiled. She had never been more ready for anything in her life.
‘Will you make me a star again?’ she asked.
Orobosa nodded reassuringly. ‘Definitely.’
‘Then, yes sir. I am ready.’
He shifted his racket to his left hand and offered her his right. ‘Shall we shake on it?’
‘Sure,’ she replied, taking his hand.
‘It is going to be a lot of hard work,’ he warned, through the lingering handshake. ‘And your loyalty cannot be divided.’
She nodded. ‘I understand. When do I start?’
‘Right away, of course.’