Fiction

Lucky James Evbouan: The Final Rites

church bell
Image by nonmisvegliate from Pixabay

Early on Friday afternoon the church bell began to toll. It was not the usual hourly chiming of the huge clock; this ringing, slow and repeated, went on for a long, long time. Tonike recognized it for what it was; a death knell, a sound which she had grown accustomed to from childhood. She and her mother and older sister had lived, actually been abandoned, in this small town since she turned two.

Before then they lived in the city. But her father, in his wisdom, had brought them here to his hometown, Itaki, to shield them from the wiles of city life. His new line of business involved a lot of travelling and so he decided that his aged mother would watch over his family in his absence. Barely a year after, his mother passed away.

Itaki had a lone orthodox church, a fairly large rectangular block with a high gable roof sporting a spire in the front and a wooden cross on the facing board over the entrance. Out back was the parsonage and to one side of the church—the left side on approach—stood the church bell and the clock tower.

All villagers attended the church and doing so was their favourite pastime. They went there at the beginning of the week for Sunday worship and twice more for midweek services. Then they came at random times throughout the week to have a personal word with the Lord. The villagers were zealous for God!

Beside the church stood the mission school, a block of six classrooms, and the only elementary school in Itaki. Tonike and her sister went to that school. Parents who could afford secondary education for their children sent them to a mission school fourteen miles away where many such children lived with relations. A few lucky ones in the mission secondary school lived in the parsonage with the vicar and his wife, an elderly couple, to assist with chores in the house and the church. In addition to free bed and board, these pupils enjoyed free education at the expense of the church in return for the ecclesiastical assistance they rendered. Only boys were permitted in the parsonage because only they could aspire to be priests—girls did not fit the mould. Knowing this, Tonike and her sister did not dream of acquiring further education beyond what their village offered.

Tonike grew up in the monotony of Itaki. When other children, wanting to show off their superior lifestyle, bragged about their accomplishments, Tonike had nothing to say. She could not see how eating rice once a month or wearing new Christmas clothes on a pair of rubber slippers or even flaunting one’s beauty—a quality of such relative nature—qualified as accomplishments but these were the kind of topics that came up.

As a child, she enjoyed being a loner; while other children liked partying or dancing or playing with one another, she would withdraw and disappear from sight. She never took part in the social activities of her peers, an attitude that afforded her the chance to avoid the catalogue of awkward questions that they asked.

Her absentee dad showed up once in a long while. Growing up in a small community where everyone knew everyone else made his absence stick out unbearably.

“Is your father no longer with your mother?” “Is he dead?” “What kind of job does he do?” “Is he in a line of business that you’re too ashamed to talk about?” These questions, though asked by children, doubtlessly echoed titbits of conversations that must go on amongst the grownups of the tiny town.

The kindest of the questions excused her father as a busy man who worked in the big town. Whenever it came up, Tonike wished she could answer it in the affirmative; only trouble was, the man came home infrequently and at such times, he bore a few scant gifts.  And he looked spare and uncared for.

The year Tonike turned eleven, her father had shown up. After the initial awkwardness of the moment which he tried to cover with weary smiles, he told her what he did for a living. But Tonike wasn’t paying attention. How could she? It was her birthday and her mind was on nothing else. Still, she vaguely remembered that he made a promise. He would soon return, he’d said, to take her away for good so they could live happily together.

Though she did not like him, Tonike realized that leaving with him would be better than living in the village with its non-promise. Her mother did not object to the plan either, which gave her some hope. So, Tonike decided to await her dad’s next visit, dreaming how her life would change forever as a result.

***

The long-drawn pealing of the church bell announced the death of yet another Itaki native, either of one who lived there or another whose remains had been brought in from the diaspora. Because Tonike did not hear the siren of a hearse which normally accompanied an away-death being brought back home, she assumed that the dead must be someone who had resided in the village with them.

The bell’s ringing was also a call, a request for the townspeople to gather for the funeral rites of the faithful departed, faithful been interpreted essentially in terms of nativity of the village. Because of this tacit understanding, the villagers usually dropped whatever they were doing at the time and gathered in the rectangular building within an hour for the glowing service. The villagers saw this gesture as an act with a reciprocal value; they believed that if they paid their last respects to others, they would get the same treatment when their time came.

Tonike’s mother bent over to extinguish the hearth fire to suspend the cooking of the afternoon meal. Like her, many households in Itaki did the same thing in deference to this ecclesiastical announcement. Her fireplace, made up of three large stones set in place to hold the pot or other cooking utensil, was usually open to the elements. Tonike’s mother gathered a board and two metal sheets to shield the hearth in case it rained before she returned from the Church.

Satisfied with her work she turned to go inside the house. That was when she saw the men, three men with grim faces, walking toward her. She hurriedly gathered together a low kitchen stool, a wooden log, and a two-seater bench for her visitors. With a rag that lay nearby, she dusted the stone on the doorstep and sat on it.

“You have to take heart, my dear,” Tonike heard one of the men say. She was listening in on them through a partially open wooden window from the side of the house. She could tell the news had to do with the passing of someone but she did not arrive at the window in time to get the gist of the message.

She waited for her mother to scream in the way that village women do to show their grief over the loss of someone, even if the deceased was not closely known to them. When the scream did not come forth, Tonike went out the backdoor and came through the side to the front where the visitors sat. She found her mother staring intently at the flame of the wood fire, obviously lost in thought.

“Sorry Mama Tooni. God will strengthen you at this time of loss,” the second man said, stretching the vowel of the first syllable of Tonike’s name to emphasize the proper pronunciation.

“Whenever you are ready, we will accompany you to church. Tonike and her sister have to come along too,” the man added.

Tonike and her sister got ready and together with the men and her mom, now dressed in a deep blue gown, the darkest she could find, they all went to church to attend the funeral rites of a faithful departed.

***

Fola left his phone in the car and walked into the sports arena. He had come for basketball practice with his friends who met there on most evenings and all day on Saturdays. At these meeting spots, close friends caught up on the latest news about campus girls.

Fola’s driver, Pa Tijani, drove slowly toward a tree and pulled up. He manoeuvred the car forward and backward several times and finally pushed it snugly into the tiny space between two other cars. He got down and walked around the car to inspect his handiwork. As he did, he stretched his slim arms outward to their farthest and then plucked off his cap from his head. He slapped it hard on the open palm of his left hand three times and replaced it on his head without wearing it, like a flattened crumpled paper left lying on a desk. Satisfied with the parking, he activated the central lock of the car and walked away.

Pa Tijani saw someone he knew, another driver, and waved anxiously to him, breaking into a run, half-galloping and half-shuffling and talking loudly and chortling all the way, placing a hand on his head to hold his cap in place. He reached Tonike’s little shop under the almond tree where other drivers had gathered.

Tonike sat on a short wobbly wooden stool with a missing side plank that connected two of the legs. Tall and slim, she had the easy grace of the adolescent street girl. Chewing gum nonstop, her leering smile and dark-rimmed small eyeballs endeared her to her male customers. Since eight o’clock in the morning, she had been at her post at the edge of the university chapel, adjacent to the sports arena.

Married to a carpenter who rode a motorcycle, Tonike was well-known in the area. On her work days her husband dropped her off at her stall under the almond tree near the parking lot of the cathedral-like chapel. Because of weddings that were held on Saturdays and church services on Sundays, she came on weekends too and had a large clientele on these two days. By special arrangement with the sexton, she got the church’s quarterly roster of weekly activities and selected her other work days accordingly.

Aside from the crowds and church people who patronized her, praise singers and beggars who never failed to show up at weddings or funerals also came.  A wrinkled, stooping, old woman came down the long track leading to the church. Carefully putting one weary leg in front of the other as she walked the woman approached slowly, her hands folded behind her back. Unable to do any meaningful work anymore she begged for her livelihood, usually from celebrants and guests at events.

When the woman reached Tonike’s stall she sat on the spare low stool she was offered.  For her, action would not begin until the end of the wedding program when people began to troop out of the hall.

Amongst the mixed multitude that gathered around Tonike were drivers who brought their masters or mistresses, some of whom were accompanied by family members to the wedding. The drivers occasionally bought items from Tonike’s stall but, typically, they loved to talk about their many experiences and Tonike indulged them all.

She talked politics with them with the confidence that her ignorance fostered, behaving like a card-carrying member of a popular political party. From what she had gathered orally over time Tonike could sketch the political history of the nation and mention the key players in the arena for her audience. She was no longer the withdrawn little girl of Itaki.

“Huh, business woman!” somebody taunted, “You are already stationed here to sell! How did you know there’d be an event here today?”

Tonike smiled. “Let’s just say I have my ways,” she said, attending at the same time to somebody asking to buy a sachet of water.

Though busy, she managed to listen to all the conversations.

“I don’t have a closing time anymore. My oga purposely wastes time and daily looks for reasons to hold me back longer than my 6:30pm closing time,” one young man suddenly lamented.

“I know what you mean,” another said. “My Madame used to wait until 6:00pm before she’d ask me to drive her to the salon or to her friend’s house at another end of the city. She usually won’t be done for another two hours. However, things are no longer well with her. She used to trade in foreign goods but not anymore. Now, with her money gone and her sanity restored, she has cut down on her late outings.”

A little ways away from Tonike, two men engaged in a mock fist fight.

“An old man is not impulsive, he fights! If I punch you, you will revere God!” the younger man said.

“Look, I have a ring! When I hit you with it, the entire church will come out to sympathize with you!” the other man said, parrying an imaginary blow and stamping his feet loudly to scare his opponent who ducked conspiratorially, stepping around in circles and laughing heartily. The two made a comical scene.

Back in the group nearer Tonike’s stall, the random conversations continued.

“My former boss is late now,” one man began. “After working for him for seven years, I woke up one day and resigned, just like that. If I’d been patient and waited, he probably would have willed a Mercedes Benz car to me as I heard he did for some of his workers. He was such a nice man but the demons of my father’s house chased me away from him, away from my destiny helper.” The man shook his head sadly as he finished relating his woes.

“I suppose that’s a lesson for me,” a middle-aged driver said. “My current oga is extremely rich. For want of projects to spend on, he decided to build a tomb for himself and had it overlaid with terrazzo. His workers passed on the rumour that he went in and laid down on the slab just to try it out and confirm its specification.” When he paused briefly to catch his breath, the whole place had gone quieter.

“He is aged, too. Maybe if I stay with him, he might will a car to me. He’s unlike the first oga I worked for, a man so stingy he promptly sacked me when I brought him food from the naming ceremony of my child. He claimed that I must have stolen from him because, as a driver, I couldn’t possibly have enough money to throw a party for my child’s christening, my first son, mind you!”

“That is so mean! Who did he think he was? God?” Tonike remarked in the middle of attending to another young woman who had come out of the church to buy biscuits and wafers for her restless children.

“You have not seen anything, aunty,” the man said. “A friend told me of his former master who, pretending to help his drivers, habitually arranged for them to buy vehicles by hire purchase for public transportation. By the time the driver had paid three quarters of the instalments, he would sack him and claim the vehicle for himself.”

“That is cruel!” Tonike said. “You mean some people can be so devious though well-endowed already?”

“That is life, my sister. It is different folks, different strokes,” said the young driver who had engaged in the mock fight earlier.

“You’re right, my friend,” remarked another man, speaking for the first time since the start of the conversation. “Take this man for instance,” he said, pointing with his pouted lips to indicate a sweaty rotund man in a tracksuit walking briskly through the parking lot. “Before now, his preoccupation must have been to overstuff himself with his riches. His doctor has probably told him to trim off some of the fat or his life will be cut short. Now, the routine for him is to daily walk for his health.”

Many of the men laughed, looking around to poke fun at their plump friends and recommend brisk walking for them, too.

“Kai! This world!” Pa Tijani wailed in a manner meant to draw attention to himself.

“Pa TJ!” someone hailed, “Is there something you want to tell us?”

“Ah! There is so much wickedness in this world, I tell you,” Pa Tijani stated. He threw his lean arms in the air and looked around until he found a boulder to sit on. Always happy around his friends, the momentary gloom that fell across his face mirrored his troubled heart.

“Pa TJ! We hail your hoary wisdom! But can you be a little more explicit?” another man pleaded.

“See, I don’t pace my life by the speedy progress that someone else is making,” he said.

“Well said! Well said!” many people chorused.

“To drive home my point, I’ll tell you about my former boss whom I’ve just seen walking into the church with his new wife.” Much of the talking dwindled and heads turned in the direction of the cathedral but there was no one in sight that might have been Pa Tijani’s former boss.

“You see, my former oga did business with a trusted friend of his. This must be about twenty years ago!”

“Ah! I know you’ve had many former ogas but is it Prof you’re referring to?” someone in the audience asked.

“I will not tell you, you cross-eyed son of a gun!” Everyone roared in laughter. Pa Tijani waited until it died down before he continued speaking.

“My former oga’s partner came from Itaki. At the start of the business, the man had removed his family to the village to stay with his old mother. My oga, a man of much learning who also worked in the university, had very little time for the business. But I cannot tell you whether he is a Prof as suggested by this my kobokobo friend here!”

“Wait until I lay my hands on you!” his friend, a retired soldier, shouted and Pa Tijani guffawed good-naturedly.

“Anyway, my oga’s partner laboured and grew the venture almost single-handedly for nine years. The business blossomed. One day, the unexpected happened.” Pa Tijani stopped for a bit, looking at his open palms. “It was miserable.”

“Will you tell us what happened or should I help you finish the story? I heard a bit of it too back then, you know,” his soldier friend offered.

“Sergeant Itege, thank you but no!” Pa Tijani said. “My former oga swindled his partner and close friend. He came up with a lot of paperwork to prove his sole ownership of the business and his two lawyers threatened his partner with lawsuits until he finally capitulated. To some friends in his inner circle my former oga openly bragged about his evil genius, calling his partner a damn fool for having been so trusting.”

“God is not asleep. Your former oga will receive a mighty retribution for his wickedness,” someone in the crowd said.

“After how many years? Didn’t Pa TJ mention that he saw his former oga entering the church a short while ago?” a young driver in the audience said, quite upset with the whole story. “I believe in fighting for myself o!” he added.

“Well, God’s judgment may seem slow by our reckoning but it will surely come!” another driver countered.

All the time Pa Tijani spoke, Tonike remained attentive though she kept attending to the steady stream of buyers who besieged her stand. When she got a brief space, she asked,

“So, what happened to the other man, the one who got cheated out of the joint venture?”

“He tried to find his feet again doing petty trade but all his money had gone with the first business. Some people said he attempted to take revenge through diabolism but Prof… sorry, I mean my former oga, was steeped in occultism himself. I used to drive him to visit renowned medicine men in distant villages for spiritual fortification.”

“Life is so unfair!” Tonike said.

“Yes. Aside from struggling to rise again, my oga’s partner suffered ill-health for some time too. After two or three years, he passed away. Can you believe that my oga arranged for a hearse to transport his remains to his hometown? I went with a few men sent to break the sad news to his family on arrival at Itaki. How long has it been now, nine… ten years? Still, I remember his wife and two daughters as though it was yesterday. We persuaded them to attend the church service to witness the funeral. The suddenness of the news did not allow for the obligatory reception for family and friends. Before returning to Ibadan I escorted his wife and daughters back to their house. I will never forget the grief of that day.”

Tonike looked closely at Pa Tijani. Her mind always had been drawn inexplicably to him. Now, she understood why. It was a tie unwittingly nurtured by sorrow. Though she could not recognize him, she now knew for sure that Pa Tijani had visited her home on that Friday afternoon long ago in Itaki when the church bell had tolled. She recalled eavesdropping on the men’s conversation with her mother. Today, for the first time in her twenty-three years, she had discovered a part of her life that had been missing.

“What of the family of your oga’s partner in the city? What happened to them?” Tonike asked.

“Family in the city?” Pa Tijani reflected, puzzled. “As far as we all knew, that man had no family elsewhere except at Itaki. He spent much of his time working the joint venture and travelling. Itege, what do you know?”

“You are right, my good friend. That your oga’s business partner had his mind on nothing else but work,” the old soldier replied.

The recessional hymn could be heard coming from the cathedral; soon, the wedding would be over. Tonike waited until she could have a more private audience with Pa Tijani.

“Do you know that I’m the daughter of that man whom your boss duped?” she said as soon as her other driver clients had gone to their cars to wait for their masters and mistresses.

“Ha, that’s not possible!” Pa Tijani said, stepping back and looking Tonike over from side to side.

“My name is Tonike, the girl who came out to the front of the house as you and two other men broke the news of my father’s death to my mother in Itaki.”

Mouth opened like a netted fish, Pa Tijani stood rooted to a point and gaped.

“Look, the church program has ended and people are filing out already. All I ask of you is, point out your former oga to me. Please.”

Pa Tijani nodded his head in agreement. Shortly after, he said,

“Look, that’s him, that one in the flowing green agbada.”

“Thanks,” Tonike said. She bolted from her stand toward the man in green agbada. Pa Tijani checked his watch and noted that Fola would be ready in ten minutes. He waited a bit under the almond tree watching Tonike approach his former oga.

“Good afternoon sir, good afternoon ma,” Tonike said, bending her knees before each person in the indigenous manner of greeting the elderly.

“Hello my child,” the man said, holding a smile that seemed to demand: Do I know you?

“My name is Tonike. I’m the daughter of Mr Kolade Awotife, your business partner of many years ago.”

The man’s eyes bulged suddenly as though he had seen a ghost. He raised his hands to adjust his flowing green agbada but dropped them down again. Breathing heavily and trembling all over, his legs began to give way under him. Alarmed, his wife clutched him, desperately shaking him and calling out his name at the same time. Soon, people gathered around them, and his driver, sensing something was not right with his master, quickly brought the car around.

At the hospital the doctors confirmed that the man had had a massive stroke.

“All we can do now is make him as comfortable as possible,” a doctor explained to the tearful wife.

During the night Mr Kolade Awotife’s business partner passed away. With a deep sense of grief, the cathedral announced during church service the next day the passing of an illustrious son and a man of great learning. People far and near commiserated with his immediate family, the university community, and the entire nation for the loss. Obit notices, inviting one and all to the celebration of the life and times of a departed faithful, flew around the city.

On the Friday set for the funeral Tonike set up at the usual spot under the almond tree near the parking lot of the cathedral. Drivers and praise singers and the usual mixed multitude congregated around her. But Pa Tijani missed the final rites for his former oga.

——————

Image by nonmisvegliate from Pixabay

About the author

Lucky James Evbouan

Lucky James Evbouan, an avid reader of fiction and creative nonfiction, lives in Ibadan. His writings have featured online in the Kalahari Review, Africa Book Club, African Writer Magazine, and at textandpublishing.com. In 2014 he published a collection of poems titled “Song of a Baby” and in 2016 a collection of short stories titled “Tales from our Past.” The short story collection received an honorable mention in the 2017 literary competition organized by the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). His latest works include another collection of short stories titled 'The Red Octopus' and a revised edition of his poetry titled 'Pieceful Life'.

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