The choristers chorus the hallelujah song by Handel Messiah, so euphoniously.
Sitting at the edge of a long, brown pew in church, your gaze lingers on him. He is the coordinator of the most revered choir in the diocese of Lokoja, Kogi State, St. Cecilia Choir Itakpe— No other choir could stand it. After winning the best choir in the diocese, for three consecutive seasons, during the diocesan annual choral competition, it has taken such outstanding feat beyond the shores of the state, coming first at both the provincial and national levels. St Cecilia choir is a force to reckon with.
A procession like a train would be seen from the far end of the church, gradually ascending: mass servers dressed in white vestments lead the way, the catechists in their purple cassocks follow suit, the knights of St John, Priests wearing white patterned chasubles file up, then the Bishop of your Diocese takes the last position. The last position seems to be the most important, like an academic procession where the VC, the most important person, is the last on the roll call. Everyone is unusually elated. It’s the second time the Bishop would be visiting your parish. Each time he pays such an auspicious visit to any parish, it’s perceived as a land mark achievement for that parish.
There’s the altar which smells of gold. And the pews are sectioned into three — a section for the women: old and young, a section for the men, and another for the children. You choose your seat at the men’s section, away from your mother’s snoopy eyes. Somewhere, behind your father, you would gaze at Izuchukwu unrestrained.
In the name of the father…
The mass kicks off. That day is Easter Sunday and everyone looks ravishing in their new clothes. Maybe not everyone. Your gaze drifts momentarily towards Njideka, the choir mistress at the choir end, you hiss. Another hissing follows. And another, until you let your foot fall heavily against the ground. The guy next to you turns his flustered face at you.
‘Miss, hope everything is good,’ he says clamping both palms, like one about to say a prayer.
“What’s wrong with this one now? Olofofo!” You muse.
‘Nothing, thank you brother,’ He nods away, still with both palms locked in together. But your resents are not directed to him but her. Njideka, has always been your rival, although she’s oblivious of this. She’s your senior at secondary school, the head girl at that. You loathe her gusts. The way she doesn’t waste a second to show off her voice to everyone, and at every choral competition. At school, she tells everyone who cares to listen that she and Izuchukwu are in love, and, soon, to get married. “Imagine the rabbit!” But Izu never said that.” That wall gecko!” You hiss again and roll your eyes. What does she have that you don’t have?
‘See as she look like goat for that dress,’ you jest aloud. The guy next to you turns again. He attempts to inquire if there’s something wrong, maybe to ascertain your mental stability, but the face you wear at that moment scares him off. Half way into the mass, everyone is seated, listening to the Bishop preach. He’s a bespectacled man standing behind the glass pulpit. He rolls the arm of his chasuble to one side and continues to talk. The fold of skin around his neck dances around each time he talks, and a forehead breaks in tiny folds.
‘What’s this man saying sef?’ Someone from behind says and heaves a long sigh. ‘Guy I don tire!’ Another person joins in. You turn around to check, not that you have been listening to what the Bishop has been saying. Oh! It’s Ofodile and his friends. He winks an eye. Then a smile breaks on his lips, tentatively. He has been making advances towards you, but you’ve rebuffed each one. He’s not the perfect man; too short, and festoons his neck with big chains like a tethered dog. You don’t like his lips, too black like your mother’s charcoal pot. His breath! OMG! A foul blend of cigarettes and alcohol. “He’s definitely not your type. Not any girls dream man,” you assure yourself as you allow your head to change its direction, gradually returning to its former position.
In your heart, there’s absolutely no space for him. Everything is reserved for Izu. Izu who has never thought it wise to look your way. Izu who flogged you furiously the other day you arrived school late; he didn’t even take a pause to realize that you are his church member after all, and his family and yours are friends. And your father and his are brothers, making the both of you cousins. He also forgot that your father did pay his school fees last session when his father ran to yours for assistance. Because he’s the senior prefect, does that give him the right to treat you with such animosity?
That day, during the assembly, he doled out ten strokes against your palm. Yet, you continue to fall for him. Even when Nkoli, your friend, insisted you informed your parents, you didn’t. You just gulped down all that pain in sweet-silence. You would give the world to be around him and in his embrace.
The homily takes an awkward shift.
‘Young girls guard your body jealously against brood of vipers,’ the Bishop says. The brood of vipers referring to the opposite sex. The shift was intentional and imperative, since half of the congregation had fallen into a state of slumber. Even Mr Paul, Barrister busybody—always responding to every single question thrown at the congregation by the Bishop, fell into that web.
Young men, women, and children, suddenly, became alive. Something that piques that interest has arrived. The Bishop begins to make nasty jokes about the male and female sex organs.
‘Ladies Insist on sex after marriage, not before. Did you hear me?’ the bespectacled man’s voice rose. The boys shout, no! Some of the girls echo, yes! While others are silent, including yourself.
You keep staring at him. Quickly your mother’s eyes which has been frantically searching for you, finally catches a glimpse. Immediately, you adjust your gaze and draw your focus to the remaining part of the mass.
Go in peace the mass is ended…
The mass ends for everyone else, not for you. It’s just starting. And you cannot go in peace, until you talk to him and successfully relate your feelings for him, even though, you’re not sure he would reciprocate. You rush over to the choir stand to meet him. But he’s busy with the ladies; they flank him. Baba for the girls!
‘Let’s take a selfie or two, please!’ a girl beckons him. ‘Izu you’ve such a melodious voice,’ another cuts in. Izu I love your hair,’ yet, another pulls him by the shirt. They surround him like chicks perching around the mother hen. Surprisingly, Njideka isn’t anywhere around him. You stand a few distances away from him, leaning against one of the church’s pillars. As soon as a handful of admirers dispatch, he turns towards the sanctuary to remove his purple robe. ‘This is the moment you’ve been waiting for Chidimma,’ you thought aloud. Don’t mess up!
You’re about to approach him, then…
‘Chidimma o! Ngwa let’s go home!’ your mother’s voice thunders from behind. She begins to walk up to you. You’re bursted! Your mother sure knows the exact moment to disrupt your plan.
Turning around, Izu sees you and your mother, standing beside. He lowers his head to greet her and does not look at you.
‘How’s your mother? I didn’t see her in church today,’ your mother inquires
‘She travelled ma,’ he replied
‘OK. Tell her I sent my regards, when she returns.’
‘Yes ma. She will hear.’
‘You remember Chidimma now, my first child,’ she tugs at your hand.
“No, he doesn’t remember me,” you muse. Like he doesn’t see you every day in school, or in church. But when last did he visit your family? You thought deeply.
You wave your hand, and flash a smile across to him. He responds with a quizzical grin.
Then your mother shoves you off to the car parked outside the church.
There in the back seat of your father’s Mercedes Benz, taking a slouching position, you decide that you must resume your choir practice. You were an active member before… Before the former choir coordinator tried making advances towards you. You couldn’t tell your mother, since he was a close friend to her.
“Chidimma what was the major lesson from the Bishop’s homily today?” Your father raises his head through the rearview mirror to get a good image, eyebrows perfectly arched, whilst presenting his question.
Ehm… Confused. Terrified. You fiddle over your blouse.
Answer me quickly, he thunders at you.
Don’t mind her. This one, I doubt if she was paying attention during mass, your mother’s voice steps in like a ghost. Although terrified, you couldn’t say anything. Like every other Sundays, your parents were sure to ask questions about the homily.
But you feared your mother more; she sure knows how to be careless each time with her words. And this time, no difference. Even after father’s insults had stopped, your mother continued, until the car halts in front of your house.
On your way to church for block rosary, you begin to hum your favorite song, your lips pouted like a hummingbird. Then you start to sing:
“Jesus is the sweetest name I know oooh.
He’s always there for me…”
You pause at the entrance of the church, genuflect as you make your way in, and then resume again. This time you’re whistling. Suddenly, you sight him behind the piano and block rosary had started. You are torn apart. You don’t know what to do. Soon you come to a decision. You must talk to him this time around. Mother is not here to stop you. You have waited for him to come to you all these while; if the mountain will not come to Mohammed, he must go to the mountain. Your steps quicken towards him as he steps outside.
“Hail Mary full of grace…,” the children continue to recite from the other side of the church.
Finally, you are standing before your crush. Both of you exchange pleasantries. You’re laughing and he’s laughing too. For that moment, he seems to have forgotten all about Nnenna his girlfriend, Claudia, another girlfriend, Suzanna, Rachel, the girl with breasts like lemons. You know all these girls and more. Yet, you would fall for him.
‘I want to tell you something,’ you whisper in his ears.
‘Oh, that’s great! We hope to be seeing you around.’
‘So what part do you sing?’ he inquires.
‘Soprano,’ you say, swinging your hands forward and backward to calm the sea of anxiety raging in you. You exchange contacts. But you don’t have a phone; yet, you dole out your mother’s contact to him. Cheerfully, you join others in the prayer that has almost come to an end.
At the kitchen, mother attends to a bucket of already slaughtered chicken, pulling strongly against a tuft of hairs on its body. You stand close to the sink smiling to yourself, while you pluck the vegetables. Your mother stares at you from the corner of her eyes.
‘Chidimma! Why are you smiling? You’ve been smiling for a while now. Tell me,’ she beckons on you.
‘You better tell me o. Else, nothing will become something,’ she insists.
‘Is it a boy? You girls of nowadays, nobody can trust you.’
‘Boy ke! No ma. I don’t have any boyfriend o.’
‘My child be careful, be careful.’
Two weeks later, precisely on a Saturday, you go for choir rehearsal. You’re singing and not singing. You relish his looks: gorgeous pink lips, an eyebrow which archs beautifully as he smiles, revealing nice row of white teeth. He smiles at you and you chuckle. After rehearsal, you would chat and chat until there was nothing more to chat about. At home, you are always withdrawn, thinking about him every time. So you steal your mother’s phone, and dial his number from a squeezed paper.
‘Hello! I just called to know how you’re doing,’ you remark squinting both eyes, and a smile runs across your lips.
‘Oh, that’s good. I was just thinking about you today.’ Another lady lay beside him, fondling his bare chest and nipples with her fingers.
You chuckle. So, you’re in a hurry to announce that you are in love with him. You have been in love with him. But you pause and take a deep breath before proceeding.
‘Izu, I love you. I have been in love with you ever since.’
Silence takes over quickly.
‘Ehm… I… You know what, let’s hangout tomorrow at the church.’ He ends the call.
No answer, but you are unperturbed. Maybe, he’s just shocked. Quickly, you delete his number from your mother’s phone.
The following day, you’re off to the church. Mother demands where you’re going. You say, you’re going for youth fellowship. A small bible in hand, you begin to sing your song:
“Jesus is the sweetest name I know oooh,
He’s always there for me…”
You’re some distances close to the church. He’s leaning against the mango tree beside the church, waiting for you. Soon your song halts abruptly. Izu is now the focus. You rush over him with a hug and he doesn’t reject. That instance, you disregard your mother’s advice: “If you as much as sit close to any boy, you would get pregnant.” Maybe you believed it. Or you didn’t. Yet, it doesn’t change the way you feel about him.
You sit close to him under the shelter of the tree, chatting away. Let’s say too close. Your hand in his and your gaze fixed at him. Slowly and tenderly, he grabs your hand, then your neck and paints your lips with a kiss. Eyes shut, you feel your heart beat faster. He grabs your thighs and squeezes your small breasts gently, until your libido rises beyond normal. He discovers you’re already wet. You throw your bible away. Within that brief moment, Jesus has stopped being the sweetest name; maybe Jesus is feeling jealous right now. It’s now all about Izuchukwu. You lay a grip over his shoulders and his thighs, trying to have sex with him; but he rebuffs and pushes you away.
‘I’m sorry if I caused any trouble,’ he tenders an apology.
‘You know this is a church. And we can’t do it here.’
‘By the way, I’m just getting to know you.’
An air of disappointment falls on you. You like his sincerity, his slickness.
After that day, you long for him the more. Luckily, he invites you over to his place. But nothing happens. He invites you another day, yet, nothing extraordinary happens. He tries to lure you into having sex with him. But you say you’re not ready. Your mother has started to smell a rat. He would frequent your house more than is required, looking for you.
Then the third day…
Usually, the third day, you expect something to happen. Like Jesus rising from the dead. You go over to his place. It’s a two-bedroom flat given to him by his parents, a gift for coming out with good grades in the just concluded WAEC examinations. He’s not staying with his parents and they are not bothered. He offers a bottle of whiskey but you reject, requesting for a bottle of coke instead. You insist you would use the bathroom before anything. But he looks like a cock in heat, sweating and squeezing his thighs. He says he would wait for you at the bedroom.
At the bathroom, you heave a deep sigh as you gaze at the mirror. “Are you sure you are ready for this?” Your conscience probes. Think about your father, a knight of the Roman Catholic Church. Think about your mother, the CWO Chair lady. Think about what people would say, the leader of block rosary gets pregnant for her cousin brother. “It’s not going to take much time,” you thought aloud. “Don’t worry Chi, you would be fine,” So, you assure yourself without giving chance to another contrary thought. “I’m doing this because I love him. And I know he loves me,” you tell the mirror before you. You wash your hair with shampoo and take a quick shower before heading towards his room.
Weeks gradually slip by, culminating in a month, not a word from him. Behind the house, you’re with your mother, peeling cassava and shelling nuts. Your father isn’t at home. You continue to peel the cassava tuber, slowly. The midday sun rises strongly over you. But your mother continues to observe you, shaking her head and hissing intermittently.
‘Chidimma come closer.’
You are flustered. ‘But mama…’
‘Bia osiso!’—come quickly, she yells. You veer towards her and she examines your breast with her hands.
You try to cringe but she grabs by the hand.
‘Chineke! Why are your breasts so hard? And they are too big.’
‘Mama, this is how my breasts are o. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
She takes a pause and in a bid to resume, you drag yourself to some corner, puking out your lungs. Then she begins to scream, her hands over her head. She adjusts her wrapper and comes at you with blows; she would use her slippers to consummate her anger. Yet, it’s not enough. Her rage refuses to be contained. She inquires the man responsible for it. You hesitate. Another round of pounding is set off. ‘Izuchukwu! It’s Izuchukwu!’
Hands over her head again. She’s lost her tongue.
‘You said what?’ she inquires furiously. You let his name out of your lips the second time. She’s devastated. She cared so much about people’s opinion. ‘How will I hide my face o? Nwa, ilaputam!— this child you’ve disgraced me. Why did you have to disgrace me this way? Of all the boys, it had to be your cousin.’ Your mother once joined a group of CWO women to ridicule Ebere who was found pregnant for the former choir coordinator. They ridiculed her in church, before all eyes.
She drags you to his house, but he isn’t there. Then, she takes you to his parents’.
The Ugwu’s are flabbergasted. How did their son get his cousin pregnant? So much they didn’t know about Izuchukwu.
After much quibbling between your mother and his mother (both women were literally tearing each other with words), finally, Mr Ugwu, who has been silent all through the moment, calms the two women. He assures that his family would take sole responsibility of your child as soon as you are due for labour. Both families agree to keep it a secret as long as the sun choose to remain in the sky.
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