The sun shed generous beams into my room in honour of its day. It was the first time in days the weather was in sync my mood. Mom was coming back today from Owerri after being away for one week. The nightmare of eating bland meals prepared by the housemaid was finally coming to an end.
I stood in front of the mirror, debating whether to attend Mass or not. Going meant Okon driving me to church, and that meant speaking to Dad to get his permission, something I wasn’t willing to do. Not after our argument yesterday night.
Applying cream on my dark, rangy arms and legs, I ran down a short list of options. My best friend Nkiru came up first. In fact, she was the only option I had since her family was Catholic, even though they worshipped in a different church from the one Mom and I did.
A glance at the clock had me moving swiftly to the wardrobe for an outfit. If I was going with the Ofili’s to church, I had to leave the house in ten minutes.
I put a flimsy yellow scarf over my head, crossed its ends over my shoulders then smoothed my green and yellow ankara gown in the mirror. Content with my appearance, I picked up the black hymn book on the table, slid in two twenty naira notes for offertory and left the house.
“Yes, dem dey house. Dey never go church,” answered the gateman, letting me through the gate.
I met Nkiru’s elder brother Chike on the patio, looking debonair in a green babariga.
“Look at you looking like a rich politician,” I teased, hugging him. He was several inches taller and spotted a mini afro. I had a massive crush on him, one that was communicated only through banter. The fear of rejection wouldn’t permit me to express it in any other way.
“You look like some rich bank manager,” he said with a broad smile. “You look like money.”
“And then you had to wear green as well. Is there something you’re trying to tell me, Chike?”
“I planned my outfit three weeks ago so don’t fool yourself.”
I laughed a hearty laugh, slapping him on the arm as we made our way into the house.
“I think Nkiru is still taking her bath,” Chike said at the top of the staircase.
Since I didn’t want to sit alone in her room, I followed Chike to his. He’d been playing Mortal Kombat. Kitana’s frozen leg was mid-air, kicking Liu Kang. Judging by her life bar, the scantily-clad ninja was courting death.
“How have your exams been so far?” He settled on the floor, reaching for the console pad two feet away.
“They’ve been good. Agric. was a bit of a headache, but I’m not worried about it. The worst I could get is a C.”
“Little Miss Brainiac,” Chike said, resuming play.
“What about you? How was the SSCE?” All SS three students had since completed their final exams and been sent forth by their schools.
“Fine.” Chike winced as Liu Kang punched Kitana senseless. “Results come out late September or so.”
“Finish her,” a forceful voice commanded. Chike flung his hands up in the air in frustration. “Why, why?” Then grabbing his head with both hands, bellowed, “Argghh.”
I laughed at his theatrics.
“Do you want to play?” Chike was offering me the console pad when three timid knocks landed his door.
Yvonne poked her head in.
“Chike, we’re ready o,” announced the housemaid.
He turned off his PlayStation while I left the room to greet his parents on the corridor.
“Ah, Ifunanya, you’re here.” Uncle Chuks hugged me in a fatherly manner. His jovial demeanour and roundish physique reminded me of Buddha.
“How’s your Dad? I didn’t see him in the canteen at work on Friday,” he said.
“He’s fine,” I replied.
Climbing downstairs, Mr and Mrs Ofili fired questions at me, punctuated with comments: “Following us to church?”… “How have your exams been?” … “I know you’ll pass.”… “Your mom is coming back today?”… “We’ll come by this evening.”
We were at the bottom of the stairs when Aunty Adaku noticed her daughter hadn’t followed us down.
“Where’s Nkiru? Nkiru? Nkiru?” When there was no answer, she asked her son to go back upstairs and get her down. “I don’t know how many hours it will take her to get ready,” Aunty Adaku grumbled as Chike dashed up the stairs.
We settled inside the new, midnight blue SUV that smelt the way new cars did. And that it was new car meant Uncle Chuks wasn’t ready to have any of his drivers behind the wheels just yet.
“This your car you’re treating like an egg. Just watch, after two months the driver will take charge,” Aunty Adaku prophesied, adjusting her towering headgear in the visor mirror.
“Adaku, leave me alone. Instead of complaining, you should be grateful to have these capable hands,” Uncle Chuks wriggled his podgy fingers like a prized trophy, “drive all of you to church.”
The car erupted in laughter with Aunty Adaku saying, “Chukwudi, please drive and stop fooling around.”
We arrived Mater Misericordiae just as the 8 a.m. attendees were departing. It was pandemonium as cars arriving for the 10 a.m. Mass had blocked those trying to get out. Double parking had further narrowed the already constricted street, worsening the situation.
“Where are those church warders when you need them?” Aunty Adaku muttered.
After five minutes of honking and no movement, she suggested we get down and secure seats inside. We all alighted, leaving Uncle Chuks to find a place to park.
A suited up man with a pinched face and a tag that read ‘USHER’ stood sentinel at the church entrance against the scandalously dressed. “Cover your head,” he admonished a young woman, holding a handkerchief. “Go to the youth section.” He pointed us in the direction of a smaller, dirty white upstairs twelve feet away. Because youth Masses ran longer than adult Masses, the comment was met by a ripple of muted groans. But they quickly turned to relief when Aunty Adaku intervened.
A blast of hot air greeted us inside the building, despite the overhead fans revolving at maximum speed and gaping stained glass windows. A scattering of church bulletins and raffia hand-fans flapped the air at different intervals and intensity.
“What do they do with all the offering money?” Nkiru grumbled under her breath, wiping tiny beads of sweat that had formed above her mouth. “This place needs A/Cs.”
We colonised an empty pew, one of the few unoccupied near the back. Uncle Chuks joined us shortly after, joking that Aunty Adaku’s ‘satellite dish’ had made locating us easy. She eyed her husband in mock annoyance as we giggled at the comical description of her headgear. An elderly man wearing an ancient scapular turned around, throwing visual daggers that promptly silenced us.
Two minutes later, the congregation rose, singing the entrance hymn, Stand up for Jesus, as the priest and his altar servants made their way down the aisle.
The first and second readings were taken by a woman wearing a skirt suit, big black hat and conspicuous gold jewellery on her neck and ears. She spoke with a confused British/American accent, worsened by the fact she dropped her aitches and added them where none existed. Home became ‘ome’ and altar ‘haltar’. Chike convulsed with laughter each time an aitch was omitted or inserted, meriting a warning glance from his mom. As much as the lady’s pronunciation and accent were a source of ridicule, her inability to delegate the task of amplification to the microphone was quite vexing.
After Ms America descended the dais, the priest rose to give his sermon, a long-winded with several inexplicable references to Nigerian movies and largely forgettable.
I caught Aunty Adaku nudging Uncle Chuks awake a few times. Chike himself was battling sleep, while Nkiru and I kept busy with a finger game we had invented for the sole purpose of staying awake.
“Mtchew, isn’t it enough? That’s why I hate 10 a.m. Mass.” Aunty Adaku fanned herself furiously as the homily stretched on over an hour. She had long abandoned her quest of keeping her husband alert.
Finally, the homily ended and the rest of the Mass went on smoothly until Holy Communion. A warden tapped our pew, signalling communicants in the state of grace to join the queue for communion. I, Nkiru and the rest of her family joined the procession, knelt on the altar’s dusty-red carpeted step, waiting our turn with the priest.
“What is that on your head?” the priest glared at me, a white disc suspended in his hand. “Are you a Muslim?”
I hesitated, unsure of the question. “No, I’m not Muslim.”
“Then why did you wear your scarf that way?”
I stared at him, confused about how the configuration of my scarf affected my qualification to receive Holy Communion. Then without a word, the priest placed the wafer on my outstretched hand and moved on to the next person.
“What did the priest say to you?” Nkiru asked on our way back to GRA. Puff Daddy was rapping in the background.
“That’s silly,” Uncle Chuks concluded after I recounted the incident. “Some of these priests think they’re more Catholic than the Pope. And to ask if you’re Muslim? Talk about sowing seeds of discord.”
“Daddy, don’t mind them,” Chike said in a dismissive tone. “Did you notice they allowed women without head coverings into the church during offertory? Begging church coffers trump everything.”
“Hypocrisy,” Aunty Adaku hissed. “That’s why a politician can pledge twenty million and nobody bats an eyelid. Instead, we clapped and sang his praises.” Then she kissed her teeth in disgust. “Obviously, ‘Thou shall not steal’ isn’t a commandment applicable to castle dwellers.”
“I keep saying it. All these religious routines mean nothing. You… But how can someone park like this?” Uncle Chuks honked twice at the commercial motorcycle parked vertically along his fence, partially blocking the way. The owner rushed out from a mama put restaurant in a construction site nearby, apologising with a wave. “What a nuisance these okadas,” he said, watching the motorcyclist in the rear view mirror before transitioning to his previous remark. “You have a conscience. If you are in sync with it, if your actions heed its whispers, come heaven or hell you’ll be fine. Everything else is a distraction—a façade.”
With the exception of the background music, the car fell silent, each of us pondering the real Sunday message as the gateman opened the gate.