Brother James was the unapologetically longwinded and pompous leader of the Sunday School class for youths in the church Nene attended.
Truthfully, most people referred to it as the “Singles’ Sunday School Class,” because it was attended by young, unmarried people. The married folks had their own class. But for whatever reason, the church chose to call this one the “Youths’ Sunday School Class.”
Brother James partially fit the definition of a youth as envisioned by the Church. He was a tall, saucy-faced, energetic 32-year old, who was gainfully employed as a Geography and English teacher at a secondary school in Asaba.
Although he was just a teacher, his ambition was far-reaching. His desire to attain the position of school principal in the near future was matched by a parallel desire of the same intensity: to find a wife. He believed that he had found the right woman. Her name was Nene.
In Brother James’ mind, Nene was the embodiment of everything he desired in a woman: she was tall, elegant, attractive, well-mannered, and for the time being, quite active in church. In Brother James’ dictionary, active in church meant God-fearing.
You see, at Aunty Dubem’s insistence, Nene had become more involved in church activities to while away time. She joined the Children’s Ministry, but she only served there on weekdays. Sunday morning was the time set aside for her and Richard to attend one service together.
Sometimes, Richard attended the one hour Sunday school class with Nene, before going to the main service, but on other days, they skipped Sunday school entirely and went straight for the service.
Whenever Nene and Richard showed up for Sunday school together, Brother James would invariably steer the topic for that morning’s class in the direction of ill-suited relationships. Unequal yokes, was the term he used regularly.
Nene had brought this observation to Richard’s attention many times, and each time, he dismissed it casually. He said that Nene was being too sensitive, and on one occasion, even said that she was probably imagining things.
“Just ignore him.”
That was Richard’s advice.
Nene tried to take Richard’s advice to heart. Oh, she really tried. But, the harder she tried to ignore Brother James and his little digs, the more obvious it was that he was being deliberate and determined to oppress them, as Nene put it. To complicate matters, she noticed another trend.
On the rare occasions when she came for Sunday school alone, Brother James would change his strategy: he would ask her to read almost every single bible passage referenced in the Sunday school manual, and would call on her by name to answer questions. By name.
The entire thing irritated Nene, but she kept attending because in her own stubborn way, she felt that it would take more than Brother James’ bullying to force her to leave. So, she kept coming, and Brother James kept at his game.
That Sunday morning, Nene reluctantly went for Sunday school alone. Because she had dragged her feet getting ready for church that morning, she got to church late. She entered the room for the Sunday school class when the lesson was already in full swing.
Before she came in, they had been discussing one topic: faithfulness in serving the Lord. Brother James stood in front of the class, wearing a black suit that looked like he had inherited it from a man twice his size. The multi-colored flower print shirt he wore underneath did nothing to redeem the faux-pas that was the suit.
This ensemble was his typical Sunday morning outfit, with the shirt he wore being the variable, and the suit being the constant.
In one hand, he held a well-worn black leather bible, and in another hand, he held the paperback Sunday school manual. If the church had granted him permission, he would have brought a cane to flog those he considered to be less intelligent, who did not answer questions correctly. In the absence of a cane, however, Brother James employed a more effective weapon: his tongue.
He had just made a long and verbose statement on Abraham’s dedication to God. As soon as Nene entered the room, he quickly changed the topic to companionship.
“…. And Abraham loved Sarah!” cried Brother James, with so much fervor that the other people in the room looked at one other in surprise. One look at their faces told Nene all she needed to know: Brother James had just changed gears. He was up to his usual trick again.
“Without Sarah, there could be no Abraham! Without Rachel there could be no Isaac! Without Mary there could be no–“
“Rebecca,” said Nene, under her breath, to correct Brother James’ improper reference to Isaac.
“What was that? Sister Nene, is there something you would like to share with us?” Brother James said, hope rising in his voice, along with his Adam’s apple.
Nene could not believe it. Did this guy have a recording device hidden somewhere on her person? How on earth did he hear her from that distance? She was sitting at the very back of the classroom of about forty people, with six rows of chairs. As she sat thinking about it, she realized that he must have had his eyes glued to her the entire time, and saw her lips move.
“Rebecca,” Nene repeated, in a loud voice. “I was just correcting you, Brother James. You paired Rachel with Isaac. Rachel was married to Jacob. Rebecca was married to Isaac.”
Ordinarily, Brother James detested being corrected or reproved in any way in front of other people. But because it was Nene who was doing the correcting, he was more forgiving, and even praised her.
“Brethren, you see, that is why it is good to study the word. We should all become scholars of God’s word, just like Sister Nene,” said Brother James, beaming and pointing a long nail that should have been clipped weeks ago in her direction.
A few people turned around to glare at her, mostly women, and Nene could feel the disapproval of the other class attendees from all corners of the room.
“I don’t know what this guy thinks he is doing, singling me out like this. At this rate, he has succeeded in making more people hate me,” Nene thought to herself.
She was right.
There were other young women in that room who hankered after Brother James’ affection and craved that sort of attention. But he showered it on the one person who would rather not receive it. The irony!
Nene endured Brother James for another ten minutes, after which it was time for the service. As she picked up her things to leave, Brother James all but flew from the front of the class to the back row where she was.
“This guy is the original Superman!” Nene exclaimed inwardly. “I could have sworn I saw him in front just a second ago.”
The man who stood beside her was all smiles as he told her that he wanted to see her briefly after the service. Nene laughed at the word “briefly.” She wondered if he even knew what it meant, seeing that he hardly ever kept to time.
“Ah, but you are seeing me right now, Brother James. Abi, is it someone else that is standing in front of you?” said Nene, hoping he would get the hint and leave her alone. He did not.
“No-o! Sister Nene, you’re so funny! God-fearing and funny. You are truly blessed,” Brother James said with a smile, exposing a chipped tooth in the upper row of his teeth. Nene wondered if he had chipped it while trying to crack a bone, or if someone had filed that particular tooth with a nail file in his sleep. The angle of that chip …
“Really?” said Nene, failing to see how her sarcastic remark could have been interpreted as a joke.
“Yes, you are. Too funny, in fact,” he insisted.
“Okay, Brother James. I am all ears.”
“No, Sister Nene. Not now. Let’s see each other after the service. There will be more time then. God bless you sister,” he said as he sped off to secure a seat in front of the church.
“See each other, indeed,” said Nene, mimicking him. “E be like say you no know me.”
Clearly, Brother James did not know Nene. She dutifully went through the motions of the church service. But as soon as the Pastor’s sermon was over, while most people’s eyes were closed during the altar call, she slipped out and headed home.
By the time they shared the Grace, she was sitting on top of an okada, halfway to Okpannam Road. The meeting with Brother James would only take place in his dreams.
The following day was a Monday. She had a job interview at one of the numerous hotels in Asaba, which was famous for its hospitality. The position was for a front desk clerk, something she was over-qualified for. Who goes to the university, goes through the trouble of acquiring a degree, and then graduates to work at a job that does not even require a secondary school certificate?
Nene considered this over and over again as she prepared to leave, but under the circumstances, she knew she did not have a choice. It was far better to be working at this job than to be unemployed. She was sick and tired of staying at home.
The interview itself lasted less than thirty minutes, but Nene ended up spending more than four hours just waiting for her turn. There were almost twenty other people waiting to be interviewed for the same position that day, and the interviewer, a small, robust man who was one of two managers at the hotel decided that interviews were not his priority.
He went to take care of numerous official and unofficial duties, while the poor interviewees waited. He made phone calls, dictated memos to his secretary, possibly left comments on people’s Facebook walls, and even went out to lunch, while all these people waited for him. Nene, whose interview was scheduled for 9:30 am did not get interviewed until it was almost 1:30 pm.
As she left, thoroughly exhausted, she decided in her heart that if she ever owned her own business, she would do things differently.
“Chei! I have suffered. All this wahala just for one miserable job interview? How much will they pay me sef?” she thought to herself as she walked to the nearest bus stop.
“Not enough, that’s for sure.”
She was so deeply immersed in her own thoughts that she did not see the man across the street that first waved to her, and when he did not receive any response, crossed the street to meet her. It was Brother James.
– to be continued –