By Maxwell Chiedozie Ihedioha
She said a very emotional, self-justifying, arrogant prayer reminding God that she would hold Him accountable for any lapses in the care and nurture of her children. She was sitting on his bed, an anxious, care-worn woman in her early thirties. She was light-skinned and wore a dark green dress patterned with floral designs in different shades of red.
They were somewhere in Surulere, Lagos.
“Are you ready?” Udemba asked.
“No” she answered, peering into her dark brown leather hand bag clutched with her left hand. Her right hand was buried in the bag, rapidly moving items about.
“No, wait until I finish smoking.”
She fished out a bundle wrapped with newspaper. When she unfurled the bundle, it revealed a heap of little items carefully wrapped in white paper. She chose one, lit it and the pungent, harsh smell of marijuana filled the room.
“What are you smoking?”
Udemba asked, alarmed. “Do you want everybody in this flat to say I brought a woman who smokes marijuana here?”
Unfazed, the woman told him in a calm voice, “Wait until I finish then we hit buttocks.”
Udemba was appalled and disgusted by her coarse language. Where did she learn to talk like that? Well, he reasoned, he had asked for it. He reminded himself of the proverb that those who fetched ant-infested faggots invited lizards to be their inlaws. It promises to be a huge, crazy party tonight, Udemba thought. A big, mad party. And I invited myself to it!
As things turned out, it was not a strange night. Infact, she was more sober, reasonable, tame and disciplined in their dealings than Udemba was in his drunken impatience. In the early morning, before her departure, and when Udemba had returned to his better senses, she introduced herself to him. She told him she was a lonely woman who left home, her husband and her children months before because of a terrible discovery she had uncovered.
Her husband was a local priest. They had four children. She had caught her husband in a very embarrassing and compromising position with her younger sister who stayed in their home. She loved her younger sister dearly and in order not to hurt her husband’s career or harm her sister, she had left her home for Lagos to spend time with some relatives and give her husband enough time to come to his senses.
Feeling very guilty and uncomfortable to find himself involved with a married woman, Udemba had no opinion on the matter. He saw his companion off to the bus stop. She told him her name was Anita and she hoped they would meet again.
Udemba had met her the previous night. In the evening he had gone with his friend on a visit to an acquaintance who resided in the popular Lagos residential community, Festac Village. Their car broke down on the way home, so they boarded a molue, the notorious, yellow Lagos commuter bus.
Udemba found himself sitting next to a young woman in the tightly packed bus. He felt exuberant, urged by near-inebriation from drinking several Guinness stouts or perhaps because of the unruly environment created by the perilously tempestuous progress of the squeaky, swaying bus. Then there were the over-excited, talkative commuters standing, crushed in the aisle between two rows of bus seats, holding on for dear life to vertical metal poles and rods overhead.
For whatever reason, he whispered into the ear of the young woman who sat to his right, quietly staring at her hands.
“Will you go home with me?”
That was all Udemba had said. Not long afterward, the bus stopped.
Udemba’s friend who sat to his left in the bus, was amazed to find him with a female companion when they alighted. Udemba too, was surprised. He had spoken to the woman more in jest than in solicitation. Some other woman would have been very offended. Oh, Udemba recalled, it would be Christmas in a few days. Was she his Christmas present? That was many years ago, before he left for the United States of America.
Last Christmas, Udemba had returned on a visit to his home in Nigeria. He came from Houston, Texas. Udemba was on the way to the local church, accompanied by his parents and siblings. Halfway to the church, his father tapped on his shoulder and said softly, with a mischievous smile, ” You will be knighted.”
Udemba swung around on the front seat to stare at his aging father who sat beside his mother in the middle seat. His mother appeared to be gleeful.
His heart was pounding. The last thing he desired was controversy or confrontation. He had come home for a few weeks of Christmas holiday, just to please his parents.
“Who. Me?” Udemba asked, perplexed.
“Yes you. The church committee has put your name on the list of those who will be knighted.”
His father’s tone of voice was both congratulatory and conclusive.The old man then launched into a lengthy sermon about the benefits of knighthood.
Udemba was reluctant to upset his parents. Yet he was no hypocrite. Nor was he conservative. Church knighthood, to Udemba, reeked of vile falsehood, of fossils and of antiques. He had crossed the mental bridge from colonialism to emancipation and there was no looking back. Udemba craved freedom. Un-abrigded.
His father’s voice reached his ears as though from very far away. What had he, Udemba questioned, in common with a saint, living or dead, or even his own father, a church knight who was awarded the honorific title, “Sir”?
On the plane of morality and character, Udemba felt himself an absolute mismatch with his father, a Saint Thomas, a Saint Columbus or even the Pope. Religious knighthood, to Udemba, was a burden too onerous to shoulder.
Udemba considered himself an ordinary man born in Nigeria, who loved and cherished his freedom. Infact, Udemba would rather see himself in the mould of the famed musician who married all his chorus girls, totalling twenty seven women, not in addition to his first wife. Then Udemba thought about his late grandfather who reportedly, had nine or was it eleven wives? Those were men. Not saints!
Well, thought Udemba, anybody who desired to recognize him in the light of deserved accomplishment was welcome. A friend of his had recently celebrated the award of a traditional chieftaincy title. Udemba felt he would sooner accept a local chieftaincy title or any other weighty traditional title than a sumptuous, spurious, illegitimate church knighthood.
Udemba was not unreligious. Yes, he believed in God. He had nothing against the church. For the sake of the community, the moral upliftment, he considered the church needful.
His parents, he knew, were proud that he had returned to visit them. At the church, they were going to introduce him as their son who had just come home from the Unites States. Well, did almost everybody in the village not know who he was? How long ago did he leave home? Seven years back.
Anyhow, the argument was in the favour of his parents since he was going to be introduced to their new priest whom Udemba had never met. Who knew who else he might be meeting?
The church was filled with attendees in a joyous Christmas mood. It was Harvest and Thanksgiving celebrations too, so in gratitude a special contribution was made by Udemba’s parents to the church. It was in the middle of this that the unforgettable announcement came.
“We wish the person we have been expecting to come up to the pulpit and make his pledge to the church.”
Udemba was engrossed in his reading of a church leaflet, his thoughts drifting to his affairs in Houston, Texas, when his sister seated next to him, nudged him. He looked at her with questioning eyes.
“They want you to go to the pulpit and make a pledge,” she told him.
“Pledge?” wondered Udemba
“Yes. Pledge. Tell them you will donate one thousand dollars,” whispered his sister.
“Me?” asked Udemba, puzzled
Again, the announcement boomed from the loud public address system inside the spacious church. Udemba looked up at the priest standing behind a lectern on the pulpit. The questioning, steady, stern gaze of the priest was fixed on Udemba. It was as though every head in the congregation had turned to look in his direction. Like a zombie, Udemba marched to the pulpit. He was handed the microphone
As calmly as he could with unsteady, shaky hands, Udemba repeated what his sister had told him to say.
“I wish to donate one thousand dollars to the church.”
The frozen congregation erupted in ecstatic hand claps. The church band came alive. The church choir chorused a deafening song of praise. As if he was somebody else, Udemba strode back to his seat.
“Now he has confirmed that he will live up to our expectation when we knight him,” thundered the voice of the priest.
Seated beside his sister, Udemba wondered about the woman whose eyes had engaged his and ignited a spark in the storehouse of his memory. Who could she be? He was sure that he had met her before. Somewhere. A long time ago. He was uncertain.
Church service was over. The congregation spilled unto the church grounds. Cars were driving off while several groups of well-dressed, cheery folks shook hands, exchanged greetings, embraced, laughed and chatted gaily.
“Please, don’t let me forget. Have you met the priest yet?”asked Udemba’s mother.
“No” answered Udemba.
“Come on then. Let us introduce you to him,” urged his father.
They hurried over to the spot where the priest dressed in his frocks was surrounded by a group exchanging pleasantries with him. That was when Udemba saw the strange woman with whom he had made eye contact inside the church.
“Oh this is the wife of the priest,” his mother beamed, introducing Udemba to the strange woman.
She greeted Udemba coolly while his mind processed, trying to fuse the blur in his memory.
When Udemba’s mother walked over to the priest, who was was engaged in a lively conversation with his father, he saw a chance to confirm his suspicion.
“Did you stay in Lagos a long time ago?” Idemba asked the woman.
“Yes. And I think I remember you. You lived in Surulere, right?” she inquired.
“Your name is Anita?””Udemba asked.
“Yes,” she answered with a radiant smile.
Just then the priest walked over.
“Our gallant knight!” he enthused, grabbing Udemba’s right hand in a firm, warm, friendly handshake.