The twins confirmed our upper balcony contained enough space to accommodate our two dining tables. Mum, Juliet, and I had spent Christmas Eve preparing our lavish feast to be served after church the next day. Roast turkey, pepper soup, jollof rice, white rice, fried rice, moi-moi, plantain cubes, akara, peppered gizzard, vegetable salad, fruit salad… (Here’s hoping everyone mustered enough willpower to resist dipping our fingers in before Mum dished out). Dad wasted no time inviting Uncle Robin’s family over to our lunch with them, although neither Aunt Bernadette nor Anna offered any assistance in the kitchen, and no-one asked. Mum’s expertise could have given any Maggi Cook of the Year finalist a run for their money—shame on those judges who turned down her application the year she submitted a form—although her style leaned towards contemporary thanks to her fancy gadgets and presentation. Unlike Papa, a real grinding-stone-and mortar man whose rustic approach dismissed any seasoning other than salt, chilli pepper, and nchanwu leaf as “foreign unnecessities”. Juliet had already added final touches to her famous fruitcake, although Mum couldn’t understand why she would decorate an overly sweet cake with copious amounts of icing sugar. Christmas lunch with my loved ones always ended with a few extra pounds around our middles, but hey, if not during Christmas, when?
Before leaving Lagos, I’d found an unworn Collectibles pencil dress from the back of my wardrobe, but Mum wasn’t sure, and insisted I tried it on for size. To my shock and horror, the dress wouldn’t even slide past my chest. Okay, I definitely had to lay off the Häagen-Dazs, but surely I wasn’t that big? My other dresses were hardly suitable for a conservative Christmas service, and borrowing from Aunt Bernadette, Juliet, or Anna was entirely out of the question—they were all smaller than me. Mum came to the rescue, lending me a loose orange and blue ankara gown with a matching headscarf which fitted perfectly, although my unofficial stylist Anna agreed I needed some decent shoes now my gold gladiator sandals were at least three seasons out of fashion. Jumping into the Peugeot, I drove down to Owerri’s Wetheral Road and found the perfect pair at Geo Cassidy boutique, making sure I wore my oversized sunglasses and Christian’s baseball cap in case pesky autograph hounds recognised me. Before returning home, I stopped at a supermarket for the Supreme vanilla Mum had asked me to pick up, and back home, I sneakily treated myself to a few scoops before storing the rest in the deep freezer. Mum still guarded any desserts with her life, and would have hit the roof had she discovered my gluttony, but surely she knew her daughter too well. Doris Duru and ice cream? Bad combination.
Christmas morning arrived. The family gathered inside the living room for morning devotion, wished each other a Merry Christmas, and prepared for church. After a quick shower, I changed into Mum’s ankara gown, imitated the skills I’d learned from the makeup artists backstage at The Doctors, and sprayed a light mist of Covet Pure Blossom on my neck, inside my elbows, and down my cleavage before standing in front of a full-length mirror to tie my headscarf.
The twins drove Mum and Dad to the newly-built cathedral a few miles away in the Peugeot while I tagged along with Fred and Juliet in their Honda. Lucas settled on my lap in the back seat, crying with laughter at the funny faces I pulled, and his mother feigned horror when I joked their little boy would fly the nest to start his own family before his parents knew it. He was such an adorable kid, the type most people couldn’t resist cooing or tickling under the chin when they first saw him. Fred and Juliet had it all—family, career, love. Fear engulfed me as I envisioned myself dying alone in the Lagos flat I’d shared with my sister-in-law and cousin before they both married. Damn Andrew. Scores of couples would stop at nothing to have even one child, but Andrew had fathered babies to avoid deportation while denying the one he already had. And attempting to rape me in my own home? I’d already sent a pixelated version of the scandalous video to his wife, revealing only her husband’s face (the computer-savvy twins had edited the video after Fred swore them to secrecy), and I threatened to post the offending clip on YouTube and send links to his business associates if he continued pestering me. What was the deal with these marriage cheats who made secret phone calls at night? Andrew Amadi was an utterly selfish individual of no use to man or beast, and I wished him a shit Christmas that year. Judging from his recent update on Facebook (‘It’s complicated’ had replaced ‘Married’ on his profile), my wish had come true.
The English language service had already started, with Uncle Robin’s family seated inside. We waited at the door until the Common Prayer chants ended and the churchwarden took down the velvet rope, allowing us to step inside. I hugged and sat next to Aunt Bernadette who looked exquisite in the light blue batik gown matching her husband’s agbada, and her hairstylist had done an exceptional job braiding her long brunette tresses. A true Naija wife. The pleasant service continued with carol-singing, prayers, and more prayers before the silvery-headed bishop delivered a heartfelt sermon in his booming voice from the pulpit.
“Let’s listen to a solo,” one of the assisting reverends announced after the sermon ended, and the bishop had returned to his throne. A small bearded man wearing maroon and white choral robes bowed before the altar and approached the podium where he waited for his cue, the congregation unprepared for what came next.
“Comfort ye….comfort ye…my people…”
Aunt Bernadette, Anna, and the twins gasped collectively at his powerful operatic vocals, turning to look at each other completely mesmerised. Where had this beardy choir guy with the beautiful vibrato sprung from? Mum gently patted my shoulder from the pew behind where she sat next to Dad, and leaned forward, speaking directly into my ear.
“That’s the new bishop’s son,” she whispered. “He’s good, isn’t he?”
“Yes, very good,” I agreed.
“He used to work for a cosmetics company, but he’s about to enter the music ministry full-time. Apparently, he’s recorded some classical songs, and will soon release an album,” Mum added.
“He’s single, too.”
“Alright, alright. But I hear he’s a nice chap, and he’s from a good family, too. Very eligible.” Not here Mum, please.
“Good to know.”
The solo merged with a choral rendition of “And The Glory of the Lord”, and the tremendous applause lasted nearly a full minute until the reverend raised his hand. The church band led the praise and worship session, and everyone formed a line leading to the front, dropping their offerings into the collection box between the choir stalls. I stretched my neck and searched for the soloist, but couldn’t find him anywhere. My actions hadn’t gone unnoticed.
“Don’t worry Dee, he’s somewhere about,” said Mum. “You’ll have plenty of time to speak to him later, and I get the feeling you’ll both click.”
“Mum!” Couldn’t she give her matchmaking a rest?
“Just saying, Dee.”
“I just thought he sang well, as did everyone else. What’s wrong with that?”
“Whatever you say.”
More hymns and prayers followed, and the service came to an end. The cross-bearer walked out in front, accompanied by the choir and clergymen, with the bishop making signs of the cross at random. The tenor had rejoined his colleagues, and he marched past my pew singing from Ancient and Modern. I froze.
No, that can’t be him. No way…
He looked in my direction and instantly recognised me, a mixture of shock and fear creeping over his face. I stared back, my knees buckling violently until I nearly collapsed, anger gripping at me intensely. It was him. My hymn book fell to the floor, and my throat suddenly went dry, leaving me unable to sing another note of one of my favourite carols. I’d heard of ghosts of Christmas past, but even Dickens couldn’t have conjured a tale this freaky. And why did it have to be this ghost?
“Are you alright, pudding?” Aunt Bernadette’s green eyes widened with concern, her bronzed freckled hand gently rubbing my shoulder. Only my beloved aunt could get away with calling me ‘pudding’, a nickname she bestowed on me when I was a plump and sweet little girl. Pretty ironic how the title stuck now I’d reached fat and bitter spinster status. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s okay Auntie Bernie, I’m fine, just starving,” I lied, swearing I wouldn’t leave the cathedral until I gave that guy a piece of my mind. “I skipped breakfast before coming here, and…”
“Stand up, Doris,” Mum scolded from her pew behind. “The service isn’t quite over yet.”
“Not to worry, your mother’s cooking is legendary, you’re in for a proper feast when we get home. Just hang in there, pudding,” Aunt Bernadette sympathised. As if food could magically erase what I’d just seen.
The singing continued until the procession left the building, and the bishop reappeared moments later to deliver the final blessing.
“May the Lord be with you…” the bishop chanted.
“And be with your spirit,” his flock replied.
“Same to you!”
Yes, that pretentious prick should pray the Lord is with his own spirit after I’ve evoked it. Without a word to Aunt Bernadette, I marched out of the church and searched the surroundings. Either he was changing out of the robe he hadn’t earned the right to wear, or he’d done a runner. No problemo, he had to come out of hiding at some point, and when he did, I would be right there waiting. A few worshippers recognised me, gathering round to exchange Yuletide pleasantries, and I patiently stayed for a chat, turning towards the cloakroom every now and again, waiting for that warbling fake. After a few minutes, I’d had enough.
“Excuse me, but where’s the guy who sang that solo today?” I asked a young lady I recognised as the church band’s main guitarist. “Maybe I could get him to sing at our next Cherry Blossoms event.” A rape accomplice performing at an anti-rape meeting? That would be the day…
“Yeah, he was good, wasn’t he? Try the other side of the church, they’re getting ready for the Igbo service. And keep up the good work you do at Cherry Blossoms, you’re helping many women out there.”
He must have escaped through another exit inside the building to avoid colliding with me. I thanked the lady and walked to the alternative church entrance on the opposite side. Sure enough, there he stood with his fellow choristers, nervously scanning the grounds until once again his eyes met mine. Oh, you’re scared now? Just you wait…
A regular low-cut now replaced those ghastly scalp patterns. He’d since ditched those dark sunglasses for an optical pair. That stupid American talk no longer existed. With any luck he’d pulled his trousers all the way up underneath those robes, especially now he sat behind unsuspecting sopranos in the choir stalls. I stamped forward, a sardonic frown twisting my face until it ached. The bishop hadn’t joined them yet, but not even the other clergymen’s presence could deter me as I grabbed my old enemy’s shoulder.
“How can you be such a hypocrite, playing Mr. Holier-Than-Thou with the talent you don’t deserve?” I spat. “You think I wouldn’t have recognised you with that stupid facial hair?”
“Yes, Doris Duru, the one and only. The same Doris you messed up in EU.” My chest constricted, the words rolling off my tongue, leaving Mex Orlando shivering now I had the upper hand. “And you’re thinking of releasing a Christian album. You, preaching the word of God? Don’t make me laugh.”
“Please, keep your voice down, please…” Mex pleaded desperately.
“Don’t you tell me what to do!” I screamed, and the other choristers gathered round as I resisted the burning urge to hit him in public as I’d done with Jide in front of my fellow doctors. Just as well – how many choristers followed doctor confidentiality rules? “You clergy kids are all the same, pretending you’re perfect kids from perfect parents, but you’re all bloody liars. Trying to wow everyone with that voice, huh? How ironic, considering you’re a demon hiding under that bearded disguise. How low would you go before you finally earn your horns?”
“Please, don’t shout,” Mex sounded like a guilty six-year-old caught with his hand in a stew pot. “I was a different person back then, I’m sorry…”
“Sorry? That’s it, ‘sorry’? Why don’t I believe you? Do you know I ran into your partner-in-crime somewhere in Lagos a few years ago, and he just laughed in my face? You can pretend all you want, but you’re just as responsible, and you’re not sorry, you’re only scared of tarnishing your image. Making money off the Lord’s name? That’s got to be the lowest of the low, even for you. Shameless pig.”
“Nini mega nge a? Unu amaghi shi anyi no na ulo uka?” A small wizened woman in a cream-coloured Sunday suit and oversized matching hat broke her way through before I could return one of those brutal slaps Mex gave me inside his grubby little flat years ago. “Wait, aren’t you the doctor on BassNet? They’re getting ready for the Igbo service inside, why are you causing all this confusion?” she bellowed, inciting visions of fire-breathing dragons.
“With all due respect, Madam, this is between this idiot and me,” I growled.
“Excuse me?” she snapped. “Who are you calling an idiot? Emeka is my son.”
You have my deepest sympathy, I nearly answered back, but walked away without a word instead, shooting another cold glare at Mex as I walked past, making my way to the car park, ready to return home.
“You! I’m talking to you!” the woman raged, following close behind. “So this is what you’re like when the cameras stop filming, eh? Have you no manners? I see that TV fame has made your head too big to show any respect for…”
I swung around, bringing my voice down to a menacing whisper. “You want to talk to me about respect? You don’t know what you’re talking about. Shall I enlighten you? I attended EU with your rotten-to-the-core golden child, and let me tell you, he’s a complete fake. Visit the alumni thread on their website, read what they say about him. And while you’re there, read what they say about me. Because of him, my name has been dragged through the mud.” I paused, making sure no other curious ears lurked close before the sordid details came spilling out. “Your son drugged me and got his friend to rape me, then he beat me up, stole my money, and threw me out in the rain after threatening me with death. Your precious son also dabbled in cultism, did he tell you that? That’s why I kept it to myself, he threatened to kill my family and me. Your precious boy is fooling the church with Handel Messiah when he’s a twisted psycho in religious clothing. There, I said it. Happy now?”
“You’re lying!” the bishop’s wife screamed. “I don’t believe you. Wash your mouth, my son would never do anything like that!” Several people waiting inside the cathedral for the Igbo service craned their necks at the windows, watching the bishop’s wife scream at their beloved TV doctor. Mex raced towards us, hoping I hadn’t revealed too much. Too late.
“I’m lying? You think I’m lying? Well, hear this—if I’m lying, I shall die a slow and painful death. Look at your son here, you can ask him. If he’s as Christian as he thinks he is, he’ll tell the truth. If he wants forgiveness after that, let him find me. That is all. Merry Christmas.”
With this sarcastic gesture of goodwill, I turned on my heel and returned to the other side of the cathedral where Fred and Juliet waited, politely brushing off more people seeking photo ops. I hated snubbing my fans, but this wasn’t the time to sign a zillion autographs. Why was this happening to me, on Christmas day for that matter? Harrison, Mex Orlando, Acne Security… What were the chances?
“Are you sure you’re okay, Dee?” Juliet noticed my melancholy disposition in the sun visor mirror, and even Lucas couldn’t understand why his aunt refused to pull those funny faces at him on the way home. “Aunt Bernadette said you acted strangely towards the end, and you ran outside after our bishop wished us a merry Christmas. Even Lucas is cross with Auntie Doris, she won’t play with him. You told Aunt Bernadette you skipped breakfast, but didn’t you grab some toast and udala jam before leaving the house? It’s not like you to develop hunger pangs before church is over, that’s Fred’s job.”
“Oh, thanks for the reminder, wifey dear,” Fred pouted in mock disdain. “Jules does have a point though, sis. You’ve gone all quiet…”
“Guys…guys! I’m fine, really. Just hungry and tired.”
“If you say so, Dee. I’m looking forward to the meal myself, and I’m glad Uncle Robin’s family is coming over to join us. He’s taking a break from cooking this Christmas, but he can repay the favour next year when he invites us over.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “I love my uncle’s wife to death, but there’s a reason Uncle Robin and his boys are the only ones who cook in their house. Auntie Bernie is such a rubbish cook, she could burn a cookery book.”
“Doris, that’s harsh!” Juliet exclaimed, although I could tell she was glad I’d told a joke. “You know she didn’t grow up eating our cuisine, and not everyone is born a kitchen genius, have a heart. She has offered to do the washing up with Anna, though.”
“Anna isn’t much better either,” I continued. “All she knows is frying plantain, and making Indomie noodles. How on earth did she survive on all that junk during university, and still manage to maintain her figure? Eighth wonder of the world,” I sighed, staring down at Mum’s ankara dress. Such a shame I couldn’t wear that Collectibles gown due to an inability to keep fatty foods away from my own big fat mouth. “Pity Uncle Roland can’t join us this year, he’s spending Christmas in Akwa, his wife’s hometown, and neither is Alphie.” Anna’s younger brother Alphonsus had flown abroad to celebrate Christmas with Marie that year. “Aunt Rebecca isn’t coming from Canada either. I’m going to miss them all, it won’t be the same without them.”
“Now you know how we all felt when you didn’t join us last year, and the year after that, and the year after that,” Fred chuckled. “Doctor duties, eh? But you’re here now, and that’s what really matters. Christmas turkey, here we come! It’s Christopher’s turn to pick the movie we’ll watch this year after we’ve eaten, although I get the feeling visitor will pop in to see us every five minutes, that’s how it is when you’re in your hometown.”
The jovial banter may have slightly lifted my sunken spirits, but no amount of laughter could shake off that dreaded encounter from earlier. I needed time alone with the perfect anecdote. And I needed it yesterday.
Fred parked the car, and I carried Lucas into the living room where we both laughed at Oscar the Grouch’s antics on Christmas Sesame Street. Mum, Dad, Uncle Robin, and Aunt Bernadette hadn’t returned from church—probably still exchanging pleasantries with old friends they hadn’t seen in months outside the cathedral, and Anna, her older brother Kevin, and their families still hadn’t arrived either. Juliet and I had gone into the kitchen to boil some white rice, heat the soups and stews, and transfer the marinated turkey into the oven before lunch started. My nephew appeared absorbed in the TV show, and I saw this as my cue. Like Cookie Monster, I craved my fix. Sneaking into the corridor, I looked around and heard Fred speaking to his parents-in-law on the phone, exchanging Christmas wishes and asking after our old friends in Shell Camp. Taking care not to make a sound, I opened the deep freezer, grabbed the Supreme vanilla I’d bought from the supermarket, reached for a glass in the kitchen cupboard, and poured Dazzle Malt over the ice cream. Jide had provided the voice-over years ago? No wonder I found the old commercial creepy. A few sprinkles of Bournvita crystals completed the mix, and I eagerly brought the glass to my lips, ready to savour the calorific goodness I’d craved all day.
“Aha, caught you!” Juliet startled me from behind, making me spill the improvised concoction over Mum’s dress. The steaming rice pot loudly rattled its lid, starchy liquid bubbling down the sides and spilling onto the stove. Juliet turned down the heat before turning back to me. “What do you think you’re doing?” she inquired. “Wait…wait, is that ice cream and malt and…chocolate?”
“Hey, ladies. What’s going on here?” Fred crept behind his wife, Lucas clinging to his hip. Both curiously eyed the frothy drink in my hand.
“Mummy, I’ll call you back.” Juliet had completely forgotten her conversation with Mrs. Anyanwu. She ended the phone call and shoved the cell into her pocket. “My folks wanted to say ‘hi’ to you, but this has to be addressed now. Lord have mercy, even looking at that stuff is making me want to puke. Why bother waiting for… Oh my God, Freddie, that’s disgusting!” Juliet twisted her face at Fred who only grinned at his wife.
“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, Jules,” Fred replied, smacking his lips. “It’s not bad, actually.”
“Oh, come on! Ice cream, malt, and Bournvita… Really? Yuck!” Juliet snatched the drink from Fred and shook her head at her son who stretched his hand towards the glass, begging for a taste. “No, Mummy says you can’t have it!” she said firmly. Lucas burst into tears, kicking and screaming, but both his parents ignored his desperate yelling. “Doris, what’s going on with you? I know you’ve had a rough year with everything that’s gone on, but can’t you help yourself? Can you imagine your patients consuming this rubbish?”
“Juliet, that’s enough,” Fred interjected. “It’s Christmas day, and…”
“Sorry Fred, but I’m just saying it the way everyone sees it. I’ve been watching you, Dee, and this is not the Doris I know. What’s happening? Even the fridge in your Lagos flat has nothing but ice cream, your cupboards contain nothing but chocolate and sweets. Are you trying to find solace in sugar or something?”
“What!” I didn’t care if Juliet was my best friend, how could she say that? “You take that back, right now!”
“I will not.” What did I expect from an ex-lawyer with a reputation for speaking everyone’s mind? “You know a thing or two about nutrition, why doesn’t that apply to your own life? Andrew did you wrong, I get that, but he’s gone. Why can’t you get up on your feet and get on with your life instead of eating like a caterpillar on death row?” Juliet paused briefly, her eyes burning with frenzy combined with concern. “Have you seen yourself on TV lately? I wish you could have heard what people were saying about you at church today when they thought I wasn’t listening. I defended you, but they had a point. You’re fat.”
“What!” Did my friend just call me the f-word? The dreaded one?
“You heard me. Why don’t you just snap out of it and move on…”
“That’s it, I’ve heard enough. Excuse me.” I walked out of the kitchen and into my bedroom, locking the door behind me, but I could no longer avoid the truth. I caught a glimpse of myself in the full-length mirror and sighed. No wonder Aunt Bernadette still called me ‘pudding’, I now resembled a plump, greasy, walking, breathing Christmas pudding, extra stodge. I placed Mum’s gown in my laundry bag, wore a stretchy multi-coloured top and black leggings, and lay in my bed until some heavy pounding shook me awake.
With a deep sigh, I scrambled out of bed, unbolted the door, and faced the Duru women, including Kevin’s wife Ogechi. And Queen Bee herself. You could always measure your mother’s anger by her calm demeanour in dire circumstances.
“We’ll talk about that ice cream malt later. Right now, we are all going to eat as a family, so pull yourself together, and give us a hand.”
I helped carry the rice dishes to the upper balcony overlooking our large compound where the men and kids sat at the table. My folks had worked hard bringing the family together for Christmas, and I wouldn’t let Mex Orlando destroy their efforts. I survived that ordeal twelve years ago, what difference would a few more hours make? I placed Mum’s best Pyrex dish filled with white rice on the table, and took my place beside Christian, noticing the tense atmosphere around the table. All this frostiness over a malted chocolate milkshake? We all held hands as Dad said grace, and Mum served lunch. Finally. My once roaring appetite had long deserted me, although I did manage to leave a satisfactory gap before pushing my plate away. I caught Mum and Dad staring from their end of the table, and I responded by looking down or looking away. No-one had enough room left for dessert apart from the children who gleefully tucked into their fruit salad and ice cream, but Juliet was happy to save her fruitcake for any visitors who dropped in later. Little did we know some unwelcome ones had just arrived.
A car horn honked incessantly until our security guard below opened the gate, and a cream-coloured Peugeot similar to ours with a ‘CLERGY’ sticker on the windshield pulled up and parked near our ixora bushes.
“Clara, isn’t that Bishop Obasi’s car?” asked Dad.
“Yes, it is. We greeted outside the church just before the Igbo service started, I hope everything is okay. Pretty unusual having the bishop over on Christmas day when he should be celebrating with his own family.”
“Maybe he’s just visiting each of his church members in their homes, he’s a man of the people after all,” remarked Kevin.
“Do you know how many people attend that cathedral? I’ll go downstairs into the living room, and see what’s going on.” Dad wiped his hands and mouth with a serviette and left the balcony, and Mum followed. I sipped on club soda and swallowed hard, watching a now gloomy Right Reverend Obasi emerge from the back seat in his purple cassock. His dragon wife from earlier jumped out behind him, nearly knocking off that wide-brimmed hat, and yelling at Mex Orlando who climbed out behind her, his head down to the ground with slumped shoulders.
“I saw the bishop’s wife discussing something with you in church, and she didn’t seem too pleased, in fact, she looked angry.” Uncle Robin leaned forward and studied me closely. “Is everything all right, Doris?” Ignoring the question, I squinted through the December sun, my blood boiling at the prospect of once again facing that awful woman and her immoral son. “Doris?”
World War III? Bring it on.