Sunday morning. After yesterday’s rain, wet plants and muddy tire trails map the general direction to the Community Catholic Anglophone Parish. The Mass started half an hour ago.
17 year old Susan is reading from today’s scripture. She is nervous. Her blue gown slightly tout at the front. Her high pitch voice dangles through mispronunciations and the struggle to maintain a less than confused tenure. In front of her are 200 or so eager Christians.
She has done this before. She is getting better at this, she thinks.
Sitting and gawking are other community members. As well as her best friend from high school. Her mother and her siblings too. James, the young man she secretly admires, is somewhere in that crowd.
The phonetics of certain words elude her. She wished she’d practiced them more yesterday during the rehearsals. Unfortunately, her Mom needed her to return early.
“Anyway, I will do what I can. I am here already and everyone is watching. No going back dear”
Susan rushes through the text as best as she can. She is very relieved when she reaches the last words.
“Thanks be to God”, she mutters as she leaves the pulpit.
Father Kevin, leads shortly with the Gospel. Visibly impatient. A usual solemn gaze is plastered across the altar. His youthful voice stretches the speakers, ever so close to their exploding point.
Ears are relieved with his chant ends:
“This iiis the Gospeeel of theee Looooord!”
The crowd responds in Christian unison. More grateful to be able to sit than for the Holy words they just heard.
The benches squeal from the weight of malnutrition. Body odors merge and private spaces amalgamate. Only the knowledge that the Mass will soon be over keeps the high school students from outright rebelling and staying outside.
A few have that courage- idle till the Mass is done. Then, come in as soon as the final blessing is about to be bestowed.
Parents call it teenage angst. The kids know it as independence.
The less courageous ones,
like Susan, wield holier than thou looks. They offer mental sacrifices for their cramps to subside and for the lady with the colorfully embroidered 30 centimeter high head scarf to fall asleep so that they, too, can see Father speak.
Like Susan, the only reason they came was because their mothers had promised hell on earth (or rather lack of food and degrading verbal insults) if they’d not completed their chores that morning to join everyone in the family wagon.
Father Kevin is about to start his sermon. It is very difficult to follow from the static blaring loudspeaker, especially when your ‘neighbor’ had to come to Mass early without fulfilling toillette etiquette AND insists on reading the Sunday Newsletter just above a whisper. He could just spare you the knowledge of his morning meal and read in his head, you think, then you remember you’re in God’s house.
“I guess na ma own cross this today”.
“Er…Suzy…before I start, I think I need to find out from you…do you have a dictionary? Because…”
When Father mentioned Suzy’s name, she had smiled. Thinking that he was about to congratulate her on her eloquence. That, maybe, James would pay attention to her name and that her mom would be proud of her and let her watch Secret Story later on TF1. She had made a couple of mistakes. But granted:
“At least I tried nah”, she thought to herself.
She felt the word “dictionary” was odd in that speech. Especially if it had to be in her favour. Something was off. Very so. Then Father’s words hit her full on the forehead.
“It’s “Exalted” not “Exhausted” eh, make sure you use your dictionary well, you should not make this kind of errors in Church. “Exalted” means…”
Susan knew what the words meant. She recalled the exact moment when she faltered. But, at that particular instant, as Father turned to look in her direction from his language pulpit, she also remembered that the whole congregation was listening and everyone was paying close attention to Father.
She could feel the pull of gravity receding and the eyes, laser beams, soaking up Father’s glorious wisdom and heavenly English prowess.
Throughout Mass, she responded and moved mechanically. Her head seemed heavier than usual.
“There seems to be more people in church today”, she thought.
Whenever someone smiled, she imagined them saying:
“Hum. Show Show tin. She can’t even pronounce common Exalted. Tsuiiiip #disgrace”.
Her head felt like a log. The kind she carried back in boarding school during Works on Thursday afternoons. Balancing on her shoulders was a task she now had to perform consciously. She mutters to herself regularly now. That was the only voice she could trust.
“I guess na my own cross this today”.
After mass, Susan smiles and greets her Mom’s colleagues. The perfunctory smile and rehearsed responses.
Her best friend shows up:
“You read well oh. You made a few mistakes too. But you read well. Like when you said…”
Susan hopes Becky would realize that she is not paying attention. That she would just kindly move away. Because her plastic smile could soon melt. Becky never did. She always yapped that way anyway. Even in school.
No wonder she was always working punishment.
And Susan kept her act. After all, it was the Rainy Season and the sun wasn’t going to be out anytime soon. The Mass was over and James was nowhere to be found. He’d probably been idling around the Church premise anyway. Or maybe he didn’t come today.
She uttered a silent prayer.
On the ride back, the nimbi gathered like a painting mocked up in haste. Her mother in her morose self didn’t say much about Susan’s performance. She vaguely cautioned her daughter.
“Do better next time, y’hear?”
As soon as they got home, the drops started. Slow, steady and drowning in quick succession. Susan rushed to take the clothes off the line,away from the impeding Bafoussam-like deluge. She seized a bundle of clothes from her elder brother and told him she’d take them in. ‘Thanks sis’, he said and smiled.
“So, that’s what a real smile looks like.”
She turned on the lights, poured the clothes on her bed and sat down. The tempo increased on the roof. She took off her shoes. Laid back. Letting her legs dangle for a while. The clothes cushioned around her. Embalming her wet blue gown.
She shut her eyes.
She didn’t hear her mom calling to tell her to unplug the fridge. That the thunder and lightning could damage the device.
She didn’t notice ENEO exhibiting its electrical display of force.
She thought of the rain. The lack of sunlight., of James, of Becky’s yapping and all the eyes in church. And of Father.
She cast away her plastic smile and took a deep breath. The smell of OMO and cheap hair oil. Father’s speech played like a ‘Sergio et Marimar‘ episode in her mind.
She plastered her hands to her face. She could no longer feel the fake, sticky plastic. The room, dark. Loud, lonely and dark.
With no one to watch and no eye to fake, she let the tremors take over and the liquid heat drown out.