When I wanted to lower myself down in our church pew, I slipped and fell, spectacles and Bible, into the fire that was Pastor Alex’s eyes. Silence dropped down on the dusty Persian rug like a rock tossed from heaven. The Pastor’s eyes refused to stop roasting me. Even the bloodshot eyes of the Assistant Pastor were roasting me. The eyes of the Sexton were roasting me. The eyes of the Band Leader were roasting. In fact, all eyes were roasting. But Pastor Alex’s eyes were way too painful. Look, if Pastor Alex had given me such a contemptuous look at the market or in the street, I’d have hit him over the head with the biggest Coca-Cola bottle, but we were in this serene Poverty Bye-Bye Ministry, Onitsha. One shouldn’t fight with a Coke bottle in the church, should one?
I bet my girlfriend’s left leg you’d scream no.
Well, I dusted myself and settled them, ignoring the warning looks of the priest and some demented congregants. I knew that all these eyes were fixed on me because I had sat in one of the gold-rimmed pews that were specially reserved for men and women with plenty money and very low IQs.
From time to time, Pastor Alex paused at the pulpit and gnarled at me. And each time he did that, I made my Angry Boy in a Dirty Toilet face and lifted my unusually long chin like the blade of a shovel.
Pastor Alex was babbling about the funny thing King Herod did with the head of John the Baptist, but I wasn’t listening. His evil eyes had galled me. I’d never listen to him again – or any other bearded pastor that found King Herod wickedly funny. I wanted to rush at the pastor and stab his arse with a bread knife. He should find that funny as well.
Brother Ayodele, a Yoruba sissy, who was seated in the next row, gave me an awkward wink, and I leaned back in my pew and put out my tongue at him.
My friends in the Anglican Church always told me that Ayodele had sucked Pastor’s Alex’s small penis and Pastor Alex had sucked Mr. Ayodele’s big penis. Each time they said this, I guffawed and shouted that the claim was grandiose rubbish because the walls had ears.
Brother Ayodele popped gum into his mouth and looked away from me.
Good, I thought, and closed my eyes. I imagined every woman in the church naked until my thing threatened to kick my trouser-fly open. I sat up and reviewed my financial position. Apart from the rumpled twenty naira note in the pocket of my filthy black trousers, the only money I had was 650 naira – in the bank. I didn’t deserve to recline in this exclusive pew, you see. If I were a politician, an oil baron, or a pot-bellied business tycoon, or a celebrity, the ushers in red bow ties would diplomatically lead me to the front and, after my bottom had touched the bloody pew, they would say, “Are you comfortable, sir? Sir, should I put on the AC, the fan, sir?”
But I was one of the hungry-looking folks in rags. And that’s why they often asked us to go and sit at the back where the AC was forbidden to be, where the faulty cobwebby ceiling fans rattled, where the loudspeakers split your ears, where the poor old women produced trumpeting sounds with their buttocks, where emaciated babies wailed into your ears, where yellow-toothed fathers in filthy clothes coughed out saliva and phlegm that ended up in your mandrill face. Sometimes fat cockroaches or mice and lizards would scurry out from under your shaky plastic chair and the ushers would leave the heavily perfumed affluent men, run to your humble side, pull at your cheap clothes and shout,” Hey, run after that! Kill it, Brother! God bless you as you kill the mice! See that lizard…Pursue it!”
My dear, I was sick of chasing after lizards and mice in the church. That was why I was seated in the gold-rimmed pew in the front, now pretending to be listening to Pastor Alex’s sleep-inducing sermon.
“…What shall it profit you and you and you to own all the exotic cars in Anambra State and perish in the everlasting inferno?” he was saying.”Chief Ebuka Offor is worthy of emulation, I must tell you. He always remembers this house of God. Chief Ebuka Offor is a blessing to…”
Chief Ebuka Offor? Chiief Ebuka Offor? Did Pastor Alex just say Chief Ebuka Offor? I bit my lower lip and stamped my feet on the marble floor, partly to quell my anger, partly because my secondhand brown shoes were itching, partly because I had not smoked any wee-wee today. Chief Emeka Offor confiscated and smoked bags of weed in the Boys’ Quarters; I had not found any money to purchase any ‘smokeable’.
Millionaire Chief Ebuka Offor was my only uncle. When my parents died of hunger in the village in the mud house they shared with rats and spiders and cockroaches and mosquitoes, this uncle of mine asked me to come to the city of Onitsha and be his chauffeur. At first, he didn’t want me – a 34-year-old village-nonentity – to live with him; it was the umunna who compelled him to take me. I folded my Ghana Must Go bag and moved into his mansion at Housing Estate. Slowly. Like a wet mouse. The first things that buffaloed me and arrested my curious eyes were the numerous awards he had won. I stood motionless on the crimson rug surrounded by four award-covered walls – Church Member of the Year Award, Best Christian Award, Anglican Father of the Season, Meritorious Award, Best Bazaar Organizer Award, Father Christmas, etc.
My uncle was one of the richest old men in Onitsha and I was one of the poorest young men in Onitsha. The pastors in the church chattered that he’d inherit the kingdom of God. Nothing was said about me. Because there were holes in my faded clothes. Because hunger had dried me up. I resembled crayfish. My uncle resembled a pregnant pig. Not the kind of pigs you see at Bidda Road, Onitsha. Clean pig, I mean.( I wished I looked like a pregnant pig because the physique suggests affluence). My uncle went to church in a limousine driven by me or by poor Mr Peter whose wife he, my uncle, fucked virtually every Sunday night on the carpet in the ironing room. My uncle gulped Champagne and I sipped fermented palm wine. My uncle donated millions of naira in the church and went to university for a Master’s degree. I donated nothing in the church. I went to no university. My uncle grinned whenever the ushers offered him the gold pew and I frowned whenever I was forced to sit on a plastic chair at the back. My uncle slept with at least two prostitutes in hotels and I slept with at least two cats in the stall. I didn’t make love to his cats, mind you, I only looked after them. Uncle Ebuka Offor once told me, “Don’t hurt those little cats, Chiedu. Take care of them. You know, they are more expensive than you. Please don’t drink the cat’s milk. The milk is expensive. Fast, Chiedu. Fast. Man shall not live by bread alone. Fast and pray!” He popped one egg into his mouth.”Fast. I demand you don’t eat the cats’ food. Treat them as a brother. I am off to the church to…Can you hear me?”
“The People’s Development Party’s chairman will be here in the evening…”
I interrupted him.”Yes, sir. I heard when he was imploring you to campaign for Dr. Peter Obiano in the church.” And he offered you ten million naira to bribe the priest, I added to myself.
“What do you…?” he trailed off.
I knew my uncle’s secrets. He did drugs; he exported teen girls to Italy for prostitution; he strangled his wife to death when the religious woman threatened to report his infidelity to the man of God. He chopped off his gateman’s head in the midnight and tossed it to his crocodile. The crocodile, my departed father told me, helped my uncle in his businesses.
Pastor Alex was still eulogizing my uncle. “Chief Offor is a notable giver; he clings to the saying that blessed is the hand that giveth than the one that receiveth.” He adjusted his glasses and gave me a look that said: leave that rich man’s pew. Go to the back. I contumaciously refused to get up. The wails of sirens filled the church and rattled the windows. We knew who was coming – my millionaire uncle Ebuka Offor.A habitual latecomer but always in the gold-rimmed pews in the front. Pastor Alex continued in an unnatural loud tone, “Chief Offor donated most of these pews you are revelling in, my brethren, and I ask: why won’t God bestow gargantuan blessings on him? God will; God must!–He feeds the poor…”
I bowed my head then to conceal my tears. My uncle fed the poor and yet there was no bread in my stomach. My uncle donated to the church, but my parents died of hunger. My uncle bought exotic cars for our priests and I dropped out of the university and could not pay the bride price of the woman I love. I wiped my tears on my sleeve and looked at the priest. I was certain that this man of God and many of the people in this church knew that my uncle’s money was dirty and yet they extolled and heaped praises on him and celebrated him. I swear, in contrast to my uncle, I have not put my long thing into a woman and I have not used the name of the Lord in vain and I have not skipped any Sunday worship for over two decades! But no one in the church had ever seized the microphone to shout my praises. I was inconsequential, you see.
“My brothers and sisters, let us be like Chief Offor…” Pastor Alex pursed his lips and peered
at the entranced door. My Uncle Offor and five other pot-bellied men were swaggering in.
“God will never forget the helpful helpers. Amen?”Pastor Alex said.
“Amen!” the congregation chorused.
An usher, a hawk-faced girl, hurried to my pew. “Brother Chiedu,” she said, “please go to the back. Important people are coming…I don’t mean you are not important…I mean….Chiedu, go to the back.”
“Why? I came before them,” I said, carrying my shame.
“Please go to the back,” she said, gesturing to the six sidekicks.
“I won’t leave this chair.”
Eight or ten ushers rushed toward us to see what the matter was. “Tell her that this is my chair,” I told them. One of the ushers, a big-nosed boy in an oversized black suit who was young enough to be my son, wanted to drag me out but I pinched his calloused hand. The church was growing rowdy. Baldheaded men and white-haired women in expensive-looking clothes and sparkling necklaces were now throwing hostile glances at me, so I leaned back in the pew and closed my eyes and pretended to be praying. And before I could open my eyes, the ushers had uprooted me from the pew as if I were elephant grass. They were now taking me to the back where old women’s buttocks polluted the air and lizards dropped from the ceiling and did endless press-ups. Children giggled and adults hissed as I struggled in the air like a snake in a wicked vulture’s grasp. Down on a plastic chair, they dropped me. Ashamed, I enshrouded my face with my Bible and bulletin and withdrew from the church. On the pot-hole-filled road that led to my uncle’s mansion, a frightening idea whooshed across my mind like a train. The idea was to purchase a T-shirt and lime-coloured trousers on credit from my Hausa Muslim pal named Hussein, don them, and fix a false beard and sunglasses.
After I had done that, Chiedu was no longer Chiedu, I hurried back to the church.
People were now donating to speed up the renovation of some of the dilapidated buildings in the church. I raised my hand and swaggered to the priest with the mien of a wealthy child and grabbed the mike.
He smiled, Pastor Alec, and said that God revealed to him a minute ago that I would drop the money that would change this house of God. He said it when I eyed the donation box.
Did I donate? No. What did I do then? I faced the congregation and said, “All these rich men in this church who donated are evil men. We all know that their money is dirty and their sins are greater than ours and we honour them and reserve the best pews for them and send poor children of God who come to church early to the back because they don’t and can’t dish out millions of naira. Even our pastor here who is frowning at me knows that. Why are we hypocrites…?”
The pastor flashed to me and slapped me across the face. Angry shouts assailed me from all directions. The hawk-faced usher wanted to handcuff me with her apple-coloured scarf as though I was a madman, but I brought her down with a flying tackle. My uncle–had he discovered who I was? – came running to me, followed by a thousand others. I punched my uncle’s beer belly when he wanted to snatch the microphone from my trembling hand. He wailed like a dog and dropped down like a bag of foreign rice. I dashed off with the microphone, jumping puddles and stones, people skipping out my way and looking at me with resentful wonderment. The ushers cursed and threatened as they chased after me. But I did not stop; I could not stop. I ran to the left yelling “Idiots!” and to the right crying, “They want to force me to donate money!” and then to the left laughing and running and jumping and falling and rising and running and laughing. And they chased me and chased me down Poultry Road.
Image: Austin Thesing Unsplash Pixabay remixed