She won’t be unseen.
Her, leaning face neck and shoulders from the little window three floors up. There, waving a cerise spill of silk. She’s seen me, it’s hard not to: my conker-shiny face and my pressed navy shift amidst so many strangers wrapped in yellows and pinks, heads of fried and thorny hair.
Far above our noise, her eyes glint, teeth flash, and she shouts. A cry with a delicious edge. Her sound prods my throat. It bolts through my chest and splits and tangles down between my hips, hot knots of it. The sound invades my spine and from there threads everywhere. I rear up to yell a reply – eyes shut, and lips pulled back.
Someone beats me to it.
A male voice. His sound cracks off walls and shuttered storefronts. I twist and squint up and there: he is a splinter figure on a high balcony – fifth or sixth floor. He looks over us, over so many bodies sheathed in glitter and violet wriggling towards Oxford Circus. He cups his mouth and hoots again.
Shrieks erupt everywhere. Jangling heralds the next float’s approach and bodies bristle against my shoulders and press my chest and back. I squirm and tug and shift my backpack off and round and hug it. I’m going to do it this time.
I’ll do it at the station, where it’s busiest.
I look over waves of strutting strangers, all of them cheerfully oblivious about how my courage will change their lives.
Sweat prickles my back and glues between my breasts. My mind is all sparks.
A miracle, how a sensible grown woman like me gets here. Every eye that meets mine wonders. I see it. There is a particular slant of smile, unbalanced by surprise, and the eyebrows lift a little and the head inclines like maybe I will make sense from the right angle.
I, Miss Patience Adu, marching with the damned. I have been coming, walking with them and watching, for twelve years. Some years I stayed in the station’s shade and let strangers bustle past to join the march. Other times I waded through the parade’s heaving core and let their music carry me. Most years I stayed amongst the watchers and tourists on the edge, smiling behind my shades and beneath my bucket hat. This time I will do it. Twelve is a good number to end on.
Another miracle: I was twelve when it began.
It started innocently, with song.
It started when, like every decent girl, I joined the choir.
Our sound. On sunny days, with buttery heat pouring in everywhere, our sound streamed golden thick. We lifted our chins for pale-pinched peaks, for harmonies that chilled the hall.
On the best Sundays, our sound unlocked the pews’ sluice gates, and papas and uncles shimmied out and pooled before the stage and sank, unfolded, and lay prostrate, murmuring in Spirit languages – tongues; our voices carried until men’s lips touched the skid-marked linoleum.
Those days, which Pastor Adebayo later called “The Gestation Years”, “Wilderness Times” or, more often, “Before”, we gathered every Sunday from ten in Midgreen School lunch hall. To think of it, that grown men laid hairy-nose-and-toes to the floor in that hall with all the gum under plastic chairs and benches upturned and peeling ceilings dripping. And the flies: when music paused and the band held its breath, bluebottles rattled in the fingers of lime-tinged lights.
Thinking of it sets my ribs aching.
Most of us joined the choir to sing, but up by the band I itched to move. I hardly knew how, how to move to match – and not distract from (or worse, interrupt) – our sound. The memory of my last dance was fresh then, what had happened after Mrs. May played a video in Religious Studies, of men whirling with skirts flared wide-high. I remember skipping home through Peckham Rye Park brimming with it and stripping to my M&S vest and socks and training my sisters; we twirled ourselves giddy and told Mama – clutching her skirt for balance – told Mama we were the Whirl Girls, Peckham’s fastest Whirling Devilishts.
After watching our giggling performance, Mama stood, took a pink stem left from a deflated McDonald’s balloon. The dead balloon was still attached like a shriveled organ.
‘No child of mine,’ the stem became a cane and whistled and licked down and streaked pain across my bottom, ‘is a devil, whirling or not.’ Again, the cane cracked down. ‘No child of mine is a devil.’
For days after, every step smarted.
I thought of the devil often through The Gestation Years, especially at nocturnal prayers when the lights blazed against blackness that coated the windows, while trapped flies threw shadows – not that I was peeking – over the blank floor. The flies’ thuds bristled under my skin. I gritted my teeth and decided we were the Chosen People – Israelites in Egypt – and Pastor Adebayo was Moses, and the flies were stray locusts.
‘They can’t get us,’ I whispered, and stroked my slick choir-robe. I whispered French verbs, European capital cities, dog breeds. I whispered until I became like the grown-ups, worshipping in tongues.
Most girls joined the choir to sing, true, but Jae – with tiny plaits to her waist and slender arms swinging – was like me; we burned to move, more than the two-step right, two left we swayed through.
We envied the frenzy of the congregation, whose white handkerchiefs whipped high and whose songs ululated beyond words. From the back row, the stage loomed over the congregation, though it was on level floor with it, bordered by benches laid in a trapezium shape. The oak pulpit at the front had one microphone for Pastor Adebayo. Four more microphones stood in front of us to catch our sound. The choir was thirty girls strong. The congregation was two hundred strong.
On stage the smell was a spell of Blu Magic pomade, black castor oil, a little lavender, little mint and a little liquorice – all of which my papa called the smell of She. Before we left for service, he – a dull square in one of four Sunday suits – stepped around the ironing board and chairs heaped with cloaks and scarves and all the sofas gone beneath dresses not quite right for that week, and boxes overflowing with leopard-print clips and Mama’s hair-wraps – which my sisters used as blindfolds – boxes of gold chains and silver studs and bangles and Mama’s shoes, a shoe for each bag, a bag for every shade of gratitude. ‘The smell,’ Papa’s gaze passed over us, ‘of She.’
He went by all the windows and cracked them wide, leaning his solemn weight into each shove, and cold morning breath chased us out to the Nissan and on to Sunday service.
Sunday mornings were the refrain, a chorus everyone – even the white people Auntie Amma brought, a different one each week lured from pricey cafes whose benches ran to the roadside – a chorus everyone knew. Even quiet sorts who watched the floor found themselves betrayed by their hips starting to sway and their bodies bounce a little.
Sunday mornings were our refrain: when Papa never mentioned work, and Mama’s quick eyes became wells of ochre light. Mama greased our hair shiny-soft while we scoffed coco-pops dry from the box. My sisters and I had dense plumes of hair then, manes that cracked combs toothless. Mama spent the longest on my hair, since I went up on stage.
I had no business being in the choir. On stage I could never hold the sweetness in my ribs, was always short on air. I could never soften my throat for my voice to flow ripe. Straining wrung my throat. On others it looked simple. Breathe and sing, breathe-and-sing and smile. If I thought too much about it, even words escaped and songs I had sung, for as long as could speak, evaporated.
Performing was not as simple as following songs. Music never flowed as rehearsed. Pastor Adebayo, inspired by the Spirit, often slipped from clap-and-swing songs to slow confessional dirge to acapella anthems to musical prayer and layers fell away until just snares and cymbals hissed and the keyboard chimed and bass beat, so steady you only felt it when it stopped and left Pastor Adebayo rasping words of praise. I closed my eyes when Pastor Adebayo’s utterances became prayer. I imagined we were the last believers alive, hiding from the Anti-Christ – or, as I heard it then, the terrible Auntie Christ.
They moved me to the back row on stage when, at fourteen, I passed Papa’s height. I loved to look over rows of smiles in suits and wraps and yellow-green-royal blue kente and pinafores and breathe the vanilla laundry powder from our silk robes. We all smelled the same; twice a month, Pastor Adebayo’s wife bundled our robes together to the launderettes by the roundabout.
Jae stood not short not tall on the end of a row in front and swayed and stepped with spice. I knew her cackle and the rush of her speech from how her hips and shoulders rolled. I softened my voice so she would not hear my braying-not-quite-harmonies. Some services I gave no sound, just worked my lips and teeth around syllables and breathed and stepped and smiled.
One Sunday, Jae spun. She twirled mid-medley of God-you-are-so-good, and for half a second, I saw her eyes and I think she saw mine and my bladder lurched, and the hall seemed a PVA-glued collage of tissue-paper hues. I glimpsed the precariousness of each breath, of all that flowed through and about us. I saw all that bound us. All week this feeling stayed – of gossamer wings folded in my chest. I waited, skipped dinner, my first fast. I waited for the Spirit to talk.
On Pentecost or Easter Sunday, when aunties guarded vats of jollof and pans of groundnut soup, the Spirit stirred between my shoulders. Perhaps the Presence was stronger because such days were inherently sacred, or perhaps only because everyone became vivid, dressed beyond their best with brilliant smiles. I crept like a mantis with my paper plate, dreading and anticipating the moment my tongue would be seized by Spirit languages. I pinched food from every table. Despite my height, people hardly saw me. I moved without spice.
Jae’s plate was loaded with yellow plantain chips and doughnuts and chin-chin and fried rice and dumplings and pale-purple waakye. She went everywhere too.
I grew so fast that summer Mama liked to say, ‘You are the answer to David Cameron’s prayers. You alone will revive the economy, with your hungry wardrobe.’ And Papa looked at me, looked at my big feet.
I knew I would stop growing someday and my skin would stop erupting in spots and I would strut like a slender copy of Mama. Until then I could only hunch, hope Jae did not see me when she twirled, as she so often did, to the congregation’s delight. Jae’s braids were the only part of her that changed, how tight and painful, how sharp the straight lines that bordered little sections of her scalp were, how they darkened as hair grew thick under and when she got tiny twists, how they shimmered. When she got an abrupt weave sewn in, the hair never moved again.
I hoped and dreaded someone would notice me not singing barely dancing and haul me off the stage when we moved to House of Praise. It was a hollow warehouse with rows of plastic chairs that the men’s fellowship youths stayed to stack away after service. Two big screens by the stage displayed lyrics of praise and worship songs, close-ups of any face on stage, not just Pastor Adebayo and the other Ministers, but any face in the choir or band. You never knew when your face would fill that screen. Jae’s face was often up, for all to see its symmetry; she looked like the diamonds I doodled over the grids of my maths workbook.
Some weeks, Pastor Adebayo put up pages on those screens from the news to guide our prayers. The first image was of David Cameron, smug, with his glossy pink forehead gleaming. I shrank into my robe, all my skin prickling.
‘When the Israelites demanded a King, God said they would regret,’ Pastor Adebayo stood smaller in this church, but the cordless mic let him roam. The back of his violet shirt rippled as he opened his arms. ‘God warned they would regret.’ He paused mid-stride and turned sideways with a conspiring air, as though he might sing and wanted the band ready. ‘We now have a coalition of kings, a marriage of tyrants nobody voted for. People voted either for Cameron, or for Clegg. Nobody voted for both.’ He dipped in a deep nod. ‘Our rulers are themselves a compromise. And they are determined to compromise, to compromise on righteousness.’ He dabbed his head with a handkerchief and resumed pacing. ‘Stubbornness grows from pride. And pride precedes a fall.’ The congregation roared amen. The sound was a mountain of ribbons; that at any moment could unravel into fluttering tongues.
My own tongue stayed like leftover dough. Even after the all-night prayer meeting, with my stomach shrunken raw, after I babbled a little, to show the Spirit my tongue was ready, nothing flowed. New letters clawed my throat and slid down to my stomach.
‘It will come when it comes.’ Papa’s hand weighed on my shoulder. ‘God’s timing.’
‘The Spirit gives many gifts,’ Mama said. ‘God might use your hands to heal, your ears to listen, your heart, mm? There are different-different ways the Spirit works. Don’t worry, baby.’
‘I’m not worried.’ I wasn’t. I had never seen Jae speak in tongues and she was at least a year older than me, I guessed. She stood beside me when Pastor Adebayo called GCSE students forward for prayer.
‘Prayer is our weapon,’ he said. ‘It is written, in Matthew chapter sixteen, from verse nineteen: I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven.’
Jae’s hands stayed flat against her robe, fair, ripe-brown with palms flushed pink.
‘These next years will define you. These years will set your course.’
Within the hush of this blessing my mind worried up its own prayers: I hoped Pastor Adebayo would ask everyone to hold hands, as he did when we prayed about earthquakes, floods and elections.
‘You are children of the Most High,’ he bellowed in conclusion.
I inked his words on my wrist as I sat through Geography, Biology, English, as teachers droned about natural selection, Glasnost and Perestroika, ionic bonds and completing the square. I watched their thin lips work around vowels and sibilance, watched their hands.
One of my favourite things to imagine was the choir following me to school. No one noticed me then, for I was one of many; no one asked if I ate fufu for breakfast or if my braids were made from horsehair. No one flicked bits of paper at me when Mr. Eric turned his back. I drew us in doodles and shaded our faces in black biro: the choir performing in New York, Berlin, Sydney with Beyoncé singing lead, even though Beyoncé was of the World.
In the backs of my exercise books I scribbled my best imaginings, sequels and prequels for parables, psalms that rhymed, prayers my mouth could not hold. Sometimes ideas rushed and my wrist hurt from writing and words slanted in knots. Maybe the teachers tried to read it when they took our books to mark, but I knew they wouldn’t understand. When they leaned close to explain chemical equations or asked why I didn’t come and sit next to someone for a change, I smelled their souls: fermented fruit and the changing rooms after PE.
I wrote so fast I felt giddy, especially after skipping lunch. I wrote that Ethan Rodgers would get expelled, and without him the boys wouldn’t pick on me so much. I wrote that I’d get full marks in algebra, and that it would rain through lunch so teachers would let me haunt the corridors and not send me outside where everyone clustered and chatted and glanced at me.
Before term’s end each of these came true.
Relief clung in my mouth, simmered in my palms. God was working through my hands. I wrote in the back of each exercise book:
Matthew 16:19: I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Presumably God had a waiting list, a backlog of prayers pending review, and maybe he liked to respond late anyway, so it let him test how much a person wanted something, whether they stopped willing it after a few days. I wrote smaller imaginings over the weeks that followed. I was tempted to try with different pens, to write on loose sheets and see if that affected the time imaginings took to manifest. But I saw the devil in that; the Bible says never test God.
Better to be sincere. So I wrote about Jae, wrote us as rulers of an African paradise, wrote us braiding each other’s hair against a rose and honey sky, twirling on warm sand until we folded in the sticky heat.
God’s turnaround this time was swift. Just two Sundays later, the big screen displayed a concrete structure gripped by scaffolding. Pastor Adebayo declared our Gestation Years over: he was building a church – a huge church in a new town only for believers – in Ghana.
Giddy, I hardly breathed, and the congregation became a steamy pool of colours. We sang our voices dry, through a circling medley of offering songs. Offering songs were the happiest and the best for dancing. Such songs went indefinitely as the basket went round and round for all to give.
‘We will sponsor twelve families, families upright and anointed, to settle. They will lay the foundation for our ministry,’ Pastor Adebayo said. ‘If you feel called, it is time to put your house in order.’
Wording was important. There were many ways to bind or loose, but not all of them worked. Our form room was plastered with posters that said: “We try our best” and “We are brilliant” and “We love to learn”. I could not tell if Mr. Eric was waiting for these words to manifest, or if he just enjoyed the colours they brought to the walls.
“Jae and I will leave school and go to Ghana with the first group,” I wrote, in the margin of my geography book.
This too was quickly approved. That evening as I washed up, Papa sidled into the kitchen and leaned his elbows on the worktop. He said I need not proceed to sixth form.
‘It’s enough, Patience. You have read enough. From today, we prepare. We must be among the first.’ He nodded once and left.
Preparation meant afternoons in the sweltering waiting room of the embassy where I was shocked to see so many people, worldly people, who wore short skirts and tight jeans, yet looked like me, Mama and Papa.
Papa worked extra hours, and Mama bought summer clothes and slippers.
My sisters recited their verses in the bathroom: ‘Whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when you depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. Matthew ten, fourteen.’
Britain was busy with its own preparations. I had not imagined for Jae and me to get our African paradise, this country would have to fall. I had not imagined the fall would begin with the only prayer I could never write. The prayer that knotted my cords, made my voice thick on stage and stopped it up at school. This desire was profoundly selfish; though I could not unpick why, Pastor Adebayo’s sermons made clear that it was an abomination for two boys to be in love and unthinkable for them to marry, as Cameron’s law promised. I guessed it was the same for two girls. I found myself pondering this request every day, turning it over looking for the source of its stench – and in dreams she cornered me.
My body betrayed me to new extremes.
I wanted to forget – forget the power of my words – so, when school finished, I took a job. I worked at the church bookshop near the huge Sainsbury’s off the High Street. The devil found me even there. A team of Senior Anointed Evangelists made the bookshop their base for outreach and filled the back room with boxes of leaflets, pages explaining God’s love with gentle illustrations that reminded me of a particular medley of Hillsong ballads we sang on rainy Sundays when new members came in clusters, for free tea and to stay dry; these tenderly triumphant melodies were composed to sway, to soften even the stoniest of hearts. Jae joined the team on the pavement outside passing fliers. She came inside once for a fresh batch. I wanted to ask why she was with the men, how come she got to help them, and was she going to sixth form or college or was she free too, and did she have a mobile phone? But she came and went, and our eyes never met.
Jae and the men guarded a big paper print out of the petition, the church’s warning and prayer against Cameron’s law.
My bones felt like so many blunt weapons hidden in the sack of my skin when I thought of stepping outside, standing near and reading it. I settled for reading people’s faces. Some looked amused. Many slowed and crossed their arms. They listened to the evangelists and rocked on their heels and smirked. Most people walked on towards Sainsbury’s like Jae wasn’t even there.
I leaned my elbows on the till. Worldly people seemed blind. I couldn’t understand how so many people missed the power written on the board, missed what David Cameron’s law, if passed, would mean. I sensed the words were not optimally arranged. Sourness spread under my tongue.
By night, I sprawled under damp heat and held the bowl of my abdomen, pressed its taut swell and imagined bearing a child without being touched by a man. I imagined becoming the vessel for His second coming. He was to return when the world was at its worst; the way Pastor Adebayo went on, Cameron could have been the Anti-Christ.
I watched the boards of my sister’s bunk overhead, guessing the odds that all were cut from one tree.
By day, I watched Jae talk to sinners in gestures that threatened dance. She turned back often and grinned. The days were too dazzling and the shop inside too dim for her to see me return her smile.
Me, a mess in that shop watching the back of that girl’s head, wishing the wind or her steps would make her hair swing or bounce again. Knowing I could go out and tweak the wording on that petition, or maybe just my hands writing it would give it the force it wanted.
The day Cameron’s law passed, shadows grew slender and curled if you looked at them too long. Men carried the big board inside and propped it at the back of the shop. After they skulked away, I went out at last. People paced on towards Sainsbury’s and returned busy with plastic bags. They scowled at me for being in the way: all the people fetching food to maintain themselves, maintain the rhythms their lives beat.
Back inside, I went and peeled the page down from the board and laid it on the carpet.
“Marriage is sacred,” it said. It did not say, “Marriage will always be sacred in this way only.”
Drawings of couples were everywhere: men and women holding hands, labeled as Jana and Ishmael, Aaron and Charlotte, Paul and Felicia, Javid and Danielle, Akin and Yetunde. Jae had drawn them. I knew it even before I read the note in the corner – a website address. Jae had stood and drawn all who’d pledged support. More and more names, people in pairs in solidarity.
Along the bottom was written, “Three remain: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.” It did not say, “The greatest of these is the particular love that binds a woman and a man.”
Someone had printed in block capitals: “God made women to compliment man.” I ran my fingers over this for a long time, tracing the stalk of the “i”.
I folded the page again and again and again until it was too thick and stiff to fold further. I pushed it into my skirt pocket.
Papa grew buoyant in the aftermath. He collected links to articles and emailed my sisters to print them at school where it was free. Mama rarely came downstairs to cook, so I used the kitchen to try new recipes. I was cooking my first pan of jollof when Papa joined me and showed me printed photos – from Pride, which I had taken care not to read about – of glitter-smeared cheeks and feathers and furs and all of it.
‘Look at them,’ Papa said, and smiled something delirious. ‘You see?’ His voice was choked with rage gone full circle.
The rice looked bloody after he left.
I remember being dizzy at the final prayer night where the first Disciples were selected to fly to Ghana. Stupid dizzy from fasting too long. My tongue had to comply this time. Jae had joined the three lead singers at the front, and in that bright orange dress she moved like a flame. She was going to be on that flight.
My sisters had grown tall like me; like our grandma, Papa said. We might meet her soon in Ghana if we were chosen. I licked my lips. It was going to happen.
Babbling in tongues, cheering and acapella bursts of song were interrupted by Pastor Adebayo’s booming voice. Cheering broiled around me put all my cells on edge.
The church was crammed and heady with the smell of She. I was drunk on it. I waded between women swathed in silk and did it, stretched and touched Jae’s shoulder, and she twisted. She twisted into my embrace.
‘God is good.’ Her voice hummed through my shoulder. She smelled of cayenne pepper and tomatoes and jasmine. She was tiny, I felt her organs trembling.
‘He is good indeed,’ I said. I imagined my skin melting into hers and our kidneys, livers, nerves fusing. I held that breath until I felt transparent.
She walked on and hugged the man behind me, and I hugged my arms and my skin held her skin’s warmth, all the sounds it contained were etched under my arms and down my neck.
I saw then: everyone speaking in tongues was made of words, and I was outside it; I saw its momentum. Its circularity. I bit my tongue hard.
Oxford Circus has many entrances and, overwhelmed with choice, we slow. We spread across the road. I pivot, and sight blurs to rainbows and winking sequins and smiles.
I turn my face up to the sky. Twelve years seems abrupt. God made the Israelites wait forty years in the desert before He let them see their home, see its milk and honey streams.
They are cheering and chanting, so much noise you could fall and keep falling into it.
Here we are: I’m going to do it.
I unzip my bag. Reach inside.
Papers’ edges and corners nip my hands. I pull out a brick-thick wad bound by a rubber band. I hold it to my face. Nothing beats the smell of fresh leaflets, all ink and shine. Leaflets and tracts I designed. The Church is luminous on the cover. I feel giddy just seeing it, thinking of my sisters there.
Next time they call, I’ll tell them I’m doing it; I’m witnessing, using my gift for His glory.
‘Come,’ they will say. They will tell me Pastor Adebayo opened a new Sanctuary Village at Cape Coast. They might mention that Jae and her husband will be moving there.
I will make sounds of surprise and delight, though I have read these updates plenty of times online.
They will tell me, again, to come. They will say that anyone may apply for a place in the new village. The assessment is simple, you only have to speak the truth, and to open your heart to Him.
‘In God’s timing,’ I will say. My work here is not yet done. I am not the sort to be swayed.
Sussie Anie is a British-Ghanaian writer.