A Promise Made... By Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo
Click here to send comments
Click here if you'd like to exchange
A Promise Made...
By Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo
Click here to send comments
Click here if you'd like to exchange critiques
One dry, windy, harmattan afternoon, an event, which was to alter Effuah’s life forever, took place. She was getting set for the cameras, in preparation for an all-important shooting for the promotion of, Ecstasy, a new hair product. Like the evil spirit who destroys a person on the day his life is sweetest, it was on this day that the man came calling. He came escorted by an old wiry woman who pushed his wheelchair. On arrival, the old woman, who was surprisingly strong for her age and frame, lifted him gingerly out of the wheelchair, depositing him in one of several soft executive cushions that adorned the visitors’ waiting room.
The gatekeeper was furious. He had stepped out briefly to ease himself, only to come back and find two total strangers whom he couldn’t place inside his visitors’ room. The man sprawled on one of the cushions which he took great care wiping and polishing daily was dusty and sickly. The gatekeeper noted that he was crippled. And blind as well. Yellow pus oozed from both eyes. The gatekeeper opened the door and spat. He lifted the window blinds and tucked them neatly in one edge, letting in fresh air.
“What have you come here for?” he asked.
“I have come for the beauty queen,” the crippled man said.
His voice was strong. It carried far and bore all the elements of dejavu. The gatekeeper wasn’t sure he had heard right, and repeated:
“What have you come here for?”
“The beauty queen,” the blind cripple answered.
“The beauty queen, did you say?”
“Look dad, if it is money you want-”
“It is not money I want.”
What would the blind man possibly want, the gatekeeper thought. Perhaps he was a beggar. But the gatekeeper knew all the beggars in town.
“Dad, come back tomorrow. Effuah has an important shooting today. The cameras are already rolling.”
The gatekeeper unbuttoned his long sleeves at the wrist and folded them. Then he began pulling them above his elbows. Beggar or not; yellow pus or not, he was determined to carry the crippled, old, blind man shoulder high out of the waiting room. It was an unwelcome task, but he had no choice in the matter. If the cripple were looking for a place to relax-
“Pulling up your shirt sleeves will not achieve anything,” the crippled, blind man said, interrupting the gatekeeper’s train of thoughts. “Just call her. Tell her there is someone here to see her. And sooner than you expect, we would be on our way.”
The gatekeeper shivered violently. He sat down on a nearby stool. Goose pimples sprouted all over his muscular body. How had the blind man known he was pulling up his shirtsleeves? Surely, he was blind. Or was it possible the cripple could see in one eye? One could never tell with some of these blind men. You could hardly cheat them in a game of cards. The gatekeeper would have loved to take a closer look at the blind man’s eyes, to determine for himself if he was truly blind, or simply playing at being blind. But his guts failed him. With sweat pouring down his armpits, he scurried out, like a rat.
Six months ago, Effuah had visited the blind cripple. Clandestinely.
“I want you to make me a beauty queen,” she cried breathlessly before she even had time to sit down on the dusty earth. “With the money I will win, I will build you a new house, take you to the biggest hospital there is and get your crippled legs and blind eyes fixed. I will give you enough money to buy the choicest piece of arable land. Your groundnut and millet farms will spread from here to the ends of the earth. You will own the fattest cows and goats, sheep and donkeys, chickens and ducks and guinea fowls. Sir, just make me a beauty queen and then, wish for anything. It will be all yours.”
This had happened towards evening. The fierce April sun, though making its initial arrangement of quitting for the day was still burning.. Effuah was drained. She sweated profusely from the desert heat, radiating from the scorched soil. Only moments before, a donkey cart had deposited her at the home of the crippled, blind man. She had journeyed over three hundred kilometres to meet him. It wasn’t difficult locating him. Once she had arrived in the village of Vellingara where he lived, all she had to do was to mention his name. And as they say, the rest was history.
All Effuah ever wanted in life was to become a top model. She wanted to be like one of those ‘gals’ who posed on the covers of glossy magazines, which littered the shelves of the supermarkets in the city, advertising flashy cars, designers perfumes, skimpy lingerie and so on. When she wasn’t thumping through glossy magazines on supermarket shelves, Effuah was browsing the Internet. She knew all the websites where she would find and download A3 sized pictures of her favourite models. She gawked at these printouts until every feature on her models’ bodies was imprinted on her memory. It was all thanks to her high school for installing a computer lab and teaching them how to be computer literate. She browsed day in day out, even missing maths and science, boring subjects. Deep in her heart, she knew winning a beauty contest was the first step towards achieving her heart’s desire of becoming a top model.
Effuah was indeed fit to be a beauty queen. And a model. She was tall, like her mentors on the covers of glossy magazines. She had a pointed nose, something African women who didn’t have it would offer a limb for. She had a rich mass of hair, the envy of her friends. Effuah was beautiful.
On her own she had learned the proper manner of cat walking, a vital too if you wanted to become a model. Every night before she went to bed, she practiced cat walking before the full-length mirror in her room. She could never catwalk enough. She was sure she would win if she joined any beauty contest. One was coming up soon. She had filled and submitted the application for it.
However, Effuah lacked the most important criteria necessary to become a winner. She had lost it right from birth. The culture, tradition and values of the society into which she was conceived and born ensured it was taken away from her. From the moment she took her first breath, and was stung by the dry, dusty air of her fatherland, her confidence had gone up in smoke. She was schooled and thought that survival had nothing to do with willpower; neither perseverance nor hard work. Soothsayers and witchdoctors were the answers. Whether you lived or died; whether you did well in life in or not depended on them.
In her years of existence, Effuah had found that perhaps this was true. When she was ill, she did not go to the hospital for treatment. The witchdoctor who lived in the outskirt of town told her what and what to do. A boiled egg placed in the middle of a cross road; or a shot of oil and a handful of salt sprinkled at a junction was enough. She recovered as soon as she offered these sacrifices. She had amulets tied firmly on her waist to ward off evil spirits. She even had one particular amulet that prevented unwanted pregnancy. “Never go around without it,” her mother had told her the day it was handed over to her. Effuah was thirteen years old then. Even though she didn’t study hard enough, she had never failed any examination. A drink of the concoction made from chalk ensured that she chose the right options in objective tests and solved maths the right way, arriving at the appropriate answers of course.
After exhausting all manner of promises to the crippled, old man, Effuah gaped with large, watery eyes, which glowed in anticipation of some miracle. She listened, sucking in every single word the cripple uttered, not letting a morsel drop. The man was sprawled on a weather-beaten mat on the veranda of his dusty bungalow. As he spoke, he slapped away dozens of desert flies, which found his withered, sunburnt face and occluded eyes irresistible landing grounds. And he counted his prayer beads. He spoke in measured tones, breaking his sentences with the noisy gritting of what was left of his teeth; all stained a deep yellowish red by kola nut. With child-like sincerity, Effuah answered the simple, but deliberate questions he put to her.
“You want to become a beauty queen, eh?”
“By all means, sir.”
“Becoming a beauty queen is not easy, you know.”
“I vow to do everything necessary.”
The cripple thought about this, drove away his flies, counted his beads. Effuah’s heart pounded with anticipation. She wanted to cover his face with her scarf, and stop the flies from bothering him.
“You are ready to do anything, you say,” the cripple said in his measured tone.
“You have to promise you will do whatever I ask when indeed you become a beauty queen.”
Effuah was beside her self with joy.
“I promise. With all my heart. Just make me a beauty queen and I will be your slave.”
“Two days before the contest, come back to me. It is what you want desperately, to become e beauty queen-”
“Yes, it is what I want desperately.”
“Your wish will be granted.”
Effuah was overwhelmed.
“May the almighty preserve you,” she choked.
She hugged the blind, old cripple with all her strength, her bosom tightly pressed against his frail rib cage, her fingers dipping into the thin of his back. Hours after she had departed, the old cripple continued to gently rub the region of his chest where the young girl’s breasts had rested. He sucked his parched, torn lips, tasting blood as he savoured the odd, but pleasurable sensation in his tired groin; a sensation which he had since learnt to forget.
From somewhere in the rear, the applause began. First one person stood up. Then another. Then another. Each clapped as loud as he could. Soon, like a communicable disease, everyone was afflicted. Finally, with all standing, the applause rose to an exhilarating crescendo. It sustained for what seemed forever. Effuah thought the roof of the auditorium would come crashing down on all heads. Hot tears came rushing down her flushed cheeks, washing away her delicately applied makeup. Adama, her best friend, and confidant, source of the old, blind, crippled man’s address fawned over her. She dabbed Effuah’s face with a scented white handkerchief, which the crippled old man had provided. It was on shaky legs that Effuah climbed the stage to be crowned. As the glittering, emerald and ruby studded crown rested on her head, Effuah heaved a long sigh of relief, which for the deafening applause would have reverberated all over the hall.
Effuah had beaten thirty-five other contestants to clinch the coveted crown. She was astonishing in her elegance, having found a willing sponsor in a well-known business tycoon. Mr. Business tycoon was quick to identify her potentials. He had agreed to bankroll her pursuit in return for a ‘little something’. Effuah gave this ‘little something’, willingly. No price was too much to pay in her desire to become a top model.
Instantly, she was the centre of attraction. Local and international television crews converged on her, like carrion eaters on an exposed carcass.
“Tell us about yourself, more than we already know from your file.”
“How happy are you?”
“Did you expect to win?”
“Do you have the full support of your parents, seeing that you are quite young, only seventeen…”
“What’re your future ambitions?”
Future ambitions, Effuah thought. Only if they knew.
“Smile for the cameras.”
The cameras went off, flash, flash, flash. Blood rushed to her head. Highly placed, pot-bellied, bald-headed, mean-spirited government officials, chief executives and diplomats had their own hidden agenda. While congratulating her, they enquired discretely:
“Would the new queen be kind enough to attend a private dinner?”
They would send their drivers to fetch her. She should name her car of choice. Venue? Her wish is their command. They would trade their right hands to share of the spoils. Effuah’s answers were evident in her innocent, sweet smiles: Yes, it would be her pleasure.
Admirers sought her autograph, bringing books and cards and pictures to be autographed. Radio stations recorded her voice. Advertising agents fought over themselves, flirting with her there and then, wooing her like a new lover. Later at a press conference, more questions. More camera lights: red, green, yellow. Her perfect set of teeth kept glittering as the camera lights reflected off them. Drunk with attention, Effuah thought gaily, I have made. Now, I will become a star.
And overnight she became a celebrity. She was uprooted from her modest home in the squalid part of town to a plush office in the heart of town. She had managers. She had assistants. She had an assortment of clothes. Perfumes. Jewelleries. She had the latest makeup kits. All free from fashion and designer houses strewn across the country, and even beyond. She was chauffeur driven in a brilliant white BMW, the star prize for the winner of the beauty contest. Modelling and advertising contracts piled in, like manna from heaven. Happy was not a strong enough word to express Effuah’s state of mind.
The gatekeeper trembled, even as he relayed his message.
“Who is this person?” Mr. Bright, Effuah’s Public Relations Officer asked, furious at the interruption. It was exactly three minutes before the cameras started rolling. They didn’t have all day. There was that other auditioning for a cellular phone company’s voice prompt. The company’s secretary has been on his neck all morning.
“I don’t know,” the gatekeeper replied.
“Go. Ask him to come back some other time.”
“Go and ask him yourself.”
What insolence, everyone thought. What could have made the gatekeeper step out of his station, and answer so rudely? Effuah was particularly affronted. She had schemed and schemed and schemed, warming no fewer than three beds before she landed this contract of modelling, Ecstasy. She wanted to get the whole thing over and done with as quickly as possible.
“I will see him if he so adamant,” she announced. “But I hope by God he doesn’t want an autograph for his damned son, or daughter, because then, he wouldn’t get one.”
The gatekeeper rubbed his ample left earlobe vigorously. His armpits itched. If there was anything the old, crippled, blind, or semi blind man wanted, he was confident it wasn’t an autograph for anybody. But he kept his conviction to himself.
On Effuah’s heels were her entourage: managers, assistants, bodyguards, make-up specialists, the whole works. The gatekeeper brought up the rear. Solemnly. The sight of a wiry, old woman standing in the middle of the visitors’ room filled Effuah with anger. She thought, Did Sany not say it was a man. Who the hell is this old hag? Then she glimpsed the crumpled bundle. Recognition hit her. She froze on her track. Not anticipating her sudden halt, her stooges rammed into her, nearly knocking her over. Her stomach walls knotted dangerously. She bent double. Recovering quickly, her entourage saw the reason for her discomfort. They watched Effuah and waited. Effuah let her raised shoulders slump. The presence of the formidable witchdoctor in the city, simply to seek her, out spelt trouble. She felt faint. Reaching out frantically, she gripped an assistant’s leg.
Sensing that Effuah was in the room, for the swift approaching footsteps he had heard moments ago had all come to a sudden halt, and sweet smelling perfumes now filled his nostrils, the old, crippled, man called out softly, “Young lady, are you there?”
Heavy silence accosted him. But he was not perturbed. He went on, “You remember me, I am sure, don’t you?”
Patiently, he waited for an answer. When none was forthcoming, he carried on, still unperturbed, “I have waited these several months for you to come. But I didn’t see you. I decided to come instead.”
He paused here for Effuah. Then carried on, “You vowed you would do whatever I asked if I helped you become a beauty queen? That you would build me a new house, take me to the biggest hospital there was, and get my legs and eyes fixed. That you would give me enough money to buy the choicest piece of arable land, my groundnut farms would spread from here to the ends of the earth. You made so many other promises, remember?”
Effuah was amazed at the old man’s acute memory. It was over six months now. And he still remembered! Confirming that she was there, and listening to him because of the tension he could feel in the electrified atmosphere, the old blind man continued softly, “I kept my part of the bargain. Now that you have achieved your heart’s desire, you will be a good girl, won’t you?”
Several seconds passed as he waited for an answer, getting none. But he knew she was there, listening to him, watching him, her breath suspended in tragic anticipation. Behind her, her entourage and others appeared dazed and spellbound, as if they had been jinxed. As the seconds dragged into minutes, muscles moved, eyes blinked, breaths were released, and Adam’s apples rose and fell as people swallowed hard.
“Who is this mad blind man?” someone croaked.
Nobody had any kind of answer.
“What the heck does he want?” another whispered.
The old, crippled, blind man had his answer ready for them. However, he allowed them to stew and cook. After what seemed like an eternity, when he felt he could hear brain cells creak against each other, when he could feel muscles twitch and hearts flutter, he let out slowly, “Effuah Dado, you will be my number six wife.”
Disorder reigned as shrill whistles rent the quietness of the visitors’ waiting room. Effuah broke down. She sobbed uncontrollably. The old, blind cripple could hear her now, amidst the confusion. He imagined how beautiful she would be, how wonderful it would be to take her. An intense fire started in his lower regions. He knew that the young woman was powerless to resist him. She was a generous gift of the gods. After all, hadn’t he been minding his own business when she quietly crept up and delivered herself to him?
As if on cue, everything became suddenly still seconds after the initial uproar. Continuing in his soft tone, the old, blind, cripple ended gravely, “I have come to take you home to Vellingara.”