Short Story: The Promise, By Hasan Shikoh
Being a father is a pleasant feeling. Particularly when of a girl. You are so proud because of having helped make such a complete, lovely contribution to the world. And when she is as sweet and ethereal as mine, bliss and pride know no bounds.
When your daughter is a little girl of five years, and you see her running among tall grass on the foot of the hill in her white frock with appliqué of tiny, colorful flowers on it, and the way she giggles chasing butterflies and beckons you to join her … and then suddenly you see her for the last time from behind Eucalyptus trees when she is twenty and in her white bridal dress and with a gleaming chaplet, running back to where the rest of her ceremony is, the cobbled promenade at the back of St Paul’s Church is certain to look lonely after she is gone. Then just some warm wind laps around your ears with a sweet-sad whisper in it. Just that. Even the sparrows and parakeets all seem to have packed up and flown away with their earlier orchestra.
The memory of her wedding is fresh. Only a few moments ago, I had been overseeing all the final arrangements just before the service began, and consequently arrived late in the chapel. The hall was packed with guests. The cacophony of ladies waiting for the bride and of the gentlemen who were talking of business and sports and government filled the air. I heard somebody say that my daughter was delaying the service until someone she had been waiting for arrived. At first I thought I should go up to her room and let her know that I was very much around, but decided against it. I wanted her to see me only in the chapel where the ceremony would be.
Soon, however, the bride, wearing her diamonds and her perfectly fitting white gown that had an arc of little white flowers that ran from her shoulders to the hem at her ankle, sauntered on the aisle with her bridesmaids and kids. I managed to find some space just behind the fifth pew and waved to her above the thronging crowd, but I could not attract her attention. The procession stopped just before the stage where the pastor waited to start with the recitation of the vows. But still my daughter looked expectantly around. I could understand she wanted me beside her – she had so wanted it all her life.
The pastor began his recitation. I determined to make my way past the throng and be with her. In a few moments, I startled her with my presence. She looked askance, recognized it was me, and she beamed. I saw the pastor notice her facial features shuffle-dance as if now there were another and happier bride before him. He stopped with the vows and asked solemnly: “Are you all right, Miss April?”
“Yes, Pastor. Yes,” she squeaked.
With her bouquet of white tulips in her left hand, she stretched out her elbow just a little so she could touch me. I shifted closer. I thought I could sense her mixed feelings – very ecstatic and then suddenly very tense. Her bouquet also slipped out of her hand, and the pastor’s mouth froze in mid-sentence. Then he gathered himself and asked in his thick baritone: “Are you sure, Miss April, that …” he paused, “… you are prepared for this?”
“Wha- Why y-yes, Pastor.”
When the vows ceremony was over and the couple kissed, and everybody hurled their bouquets at them, the lovely chiming music began to spread like a happy cloud into the hall amid shouts of “Congratulations” and “Best wishes”. Soon, the hall began to empty as people walked into the dining area where a huge cake and delicious dishes and drinks awaited them.
I kept at close heels with my daughter and Julian, my son-in-law, and she kept her left hand behind her so I too could hold her hand. Blissful with our shared little secret, we went straight to the tall, creamy cake, and she and Julian cut it, setting off great applause from the guests.
She waved to everybody and the smartly dressed people came to talk briefly to the woman-of-the moment, and she dealt with all of them very cheerfully. I could notice the way her eyes shone. It was as if the ink of a full moon were dripping from them and collecting thinly just around the lids.
The couple engrossed themselves among their chattersome friends so I pulled away. I wanted to see my daughter from different angles; close up and distant. This chance would never come again.
The chink and clatter of cutlery and the hum of the air-conditioning, and the giggle and laughter of the ladies and the boom of the men’s voices charged the dining hall. And despite all that gregariousness, the ceremony ate the dizzying succession of food like they had never eaten before. They were all merry. And this was my daughter’s wedding. How much prouder could a father be?
April detached herself from her friends and started to look for me. I could almost always sense it whenever her mind began to think of me again. I was her very special guest, she had said to me a long time ago. In other words, I was the most revered of all those people in the hall. It made me feel so big.
I stood by a tall window so that she could spot me. When our eyes met, she excused herself from Julian who was busy talking to his friends, and both of us slunk to the promenade at the back of the church.
I waited for her outside the huge mahogany door. She looked at me for a long time and smiled that indefatigable smile of hers. I smiled back and my heart pounded in my throat. We stayed like that – sentient beings – for a long time until our eyes were tearful.
Then she broke the spell: “You haven’t changed, Baba.”
“You’ve become a woman, my little girl.”
She continued to smile.
“Remember you’d said to me you’d like to take a last walk with me before I went away married?”
“Yes, April, I do.”
“Well, I’ve kept my promise.”
“Let’s go. You and me. We walk like we used to.”
We silently took a complete round of the cobbled walkway. Then she spoke again: “Listen to those parakeets. I’ve always loved their song.”
“I know, sweetheart. You always loved the outdoors. Africa was perfect for you.”
“That’s your daughter.”
“Yes, I too love Nature. I love God. He has been very kind to me.”
“God has been kind to you? What do you mean?”
“I got to meet you again so he’s been kind to me. Simple. And then I meet your mother so often now.”
“Oh, how is she?”
“Very fine. She has her work to do and she does it very well. She’s way ahead of me.”
April became quiet. The parakeets and the little sparrows hidden in the thick foliage of the trees cackled and chirped in the divine hush of the church.
This time I broke our silence.
“See those gardenias?” I said, pointing at the rows of the little flowers along the promenade. “Those were your favorite when you were seven. You always brought some from our garden and put them in a crystal vase in the living room.”
“Yes. Bu- but I guess I like tulips more now.”
I could sense she still wasn’t comfortable. Her uneasiness was drawn all over her skin. Perhaps the earlier mention of her mother had disturbed her. She had got the chance to live with me; never with her. We kept walking quietly for another eight minutes or so, before I began to get a little awkward myself. Time was passing away quickly.
“Can’t you stay longer?”
I was taken aback. It was as if my face had exploded. That was one thing I never wanted her to say. I would miss her just as much as she missed me.
May be more now.
“You know I can’t. You know I can’t.”
“Please. I know you want to go.”
“How can you say that?”
“You’ve been too quiet. Is there something on your mind?”
“You know I’ve always been quiet. That’s my nature. But you need to be going soon. People will notice your absence, dear. It’s your marriage day.”
Three old nuns hurried past us. One peered obliquely at April in her wedding dress, then back at her companions. They all drew the cross.
“You must hurry on now. Look how awkward it would be for you if someone else noticed you like this here.”
“But I’m with you. I’m happy. It’s my wedding. I should have whatever I wish.”
I had no answer. Life had to be lived on. She should have learnt that in all this time.
There was a long pause again. Her cheeks began to pale. She was beginning to understand now. Perhaps reality was dawning on her after all.
“Will you see me off at the door, Baba?” I noticed she couldn’t cover up the crushed look on her face as she spoke.
“You are getting late. You should be rushing now.”
“Will you come again?”
“Will you ever come again?”
“… it … it … will not … be possible.”
She was completely still. I thought she had stopped breathing.
“Now you must get going. I have already overspent my time sanction. Go.”
She didn’t move. It was as if time had stopped. It was as if the birds had never existed.
Then I noticed the sky would turn blue soon.
“Go, April.” I choked.
Still she didn’t move. From far down the promenade the muted cackle, laughter, music and light reached us. I seemed to implode as I held back my tears.
Then I knew the time had come for sure.
I stepped forward and kissed her on the forehead. She remained stationary, but a large teardrop fell on her necklace. I couldn’t take it any longer, and quickly disappeared into the trees.
April stood still for a long time. She should go now, I thought. They must have noticed her absence by now.
“I love you … Baba,” she finally spoke to the breeze. “… and pay my regards to mama.”
Then she jerked out of her trance, quickly turned and ran back toward the church, holding up her dress. She was my little girl running on the foot of the hill among the flowers and grasses. But the tic-tac tic-tac of her white stilettos knocking on the cobbles heralded of a different kind of urgency. She had all her life ahead of her. All of a new life to live. I prayed that she might live long to have it all.
Soon, my girl vanished.
And the promenade became empty, very, very lonely.
“I love you, too, April,” I whispered from the tree I was hidden behind. I felt as if I was swollen from inside. I could not hold back my tears any longer. The dam broke.
Twelve months ago she had asked me to be at her wedding come what may. I had committed to her that I would. Because of the condition that I was in then, I was helpless. I had needed to make her feel confident, hopeful, as I lay critically injured after my car accident. In the finance ministry, work was always much, and my driver had to drive fast as we had to reach the presidency urgently. But God had other plans.
Evening settles like a song. The breeze picks up again. The solemn, silvery chime of the church bells spreads out once, then twice and then thrice. I have proudly married my daughter off. The birds with their orchestra have gone. I too must go back to my cemetery now.
Dead men don’t have much choice, they say. But I did. God has been kind to me. I was happy that according to my wish my daughter had a last walk with me before she went away as a married woman. I am sure my daughter would be pleased too, that her Baba also kept his promise.