The alarm clock would go off by 4.59am, Mama would sweep into your room swiftly, her nightgown making whispery swish swish sounds like rustling of dry leaves in harmattan.
“Adachukwu, wake up, it’s time to pray. Bịa, ka anyị kpe ekpere,” she would say and shake you so much that the pink card on your bedpost which read: “Natural beauty lasts more than artificial beauty” would fall off, slipping under your bed.
You will sit up and rub your eyes and yawn again, and Mama would give you another jerk and tug her wrapper over the shoulder and leave the room.
You would pick up the pink card and tie a wrapper over your nightgown and go for the morning devotion.
In the sitting room, your father would be sitting in the doubleseater couch, his big leather Bible placed on a small stool made of sturdy wood. He would ask Hannah to lead the choruses and she would grumble loudly about why someone else was not picked, and murmur quietly about her sleep being denied her.
She would start with Igbo choruses, her alto voice bouncing off the walls of the room. Other members of the family would join in slowly; Chimdalu clapping the loudest and you the smallest, Hannah never clapped during singing.
Then, her voice would begin to falter and lose volume like a flickering light as she began to doze. Papa would yell at her in that thunderclap voice and all sleep would vanish from her eyes. Sometimes, Mama would take over and start leading the choruses, while Hannah would hum appreciatively and then, sleep off.
After the morning devotion, you would go to the kitchen with Hannah to prepare rice and stew for the day.
Hannah would make the stew on the gas cooker, while you would boil rice over the burning firewood.
You hated cooking on firewood with passion and the smoke always made you cough; you also hated the smell of smoke that lingered on your body after you cooked over the firewood.
Sometimes, Hannah would laugh and call you ‘ajebutter’ as you coughed, your eyes turning red and watery with the effort.
“Isi gbarie gị ebe ahụ,” you would reply.
Today was Sunday, the day of the Lord, it always sounded as important as Papa said. You would sit in the choir seat with other choristers with pleated skirt long enough to show no calf and listen quietly to the sermon.
“You are a pastor’s child, and others are looking, watching you, make sure you exhibit the life of a Christian,” Papa always said so you would listen, trying hard not to sleep during messages.
Papa also said that makeup, hairdos, jewelries and trousers were not the attire of a godly Christian woman; so you kept your face bland like an uncultivated land.
You would also narrow your eyes in the perfect serene godly look as you shook hands with people after church service, subduing the spirit of pride, which dethroned Lucifer.
Yet someone was caged, you could never shake off the nagging feeling in your gut that you were being held from being who you truly are. You always wondered how it would feel to run lipstick over your lips, how a pair of trousers would cling over your hips. You wondered how it would feel to hug people instead of shaking hands with them, especially that fine youth corps member in your church.
You wondered how it would feel to joke with other youths of the church after service instead of sitting back in the back of your father’s car and watching them through the wound down window.
You would follow the sound of their voice, watching them smile, wondering what it felt like to be different.
So it began.
You began with reading; your classmate brought a copy of James Hadley Chase’ Orchids for Miss Blandish and you borrowed it, staying up at night, under the covers to read the novel.
You started to read every single copy you could lay your hands on till you struck it rich, you discovered that Papa’s trunk under his bed were full of JHC novels, drum magazines, true and master detective magazines and other materials.
You started to wolf them down. Mama caught you once, she pulled your ears and twisted them so much that it smarted for some days.
“Look at the rubbish you are reading,” she said and yanked the book off your hand. Anger filtered into your nostrils and you stood up and snatched the book back.
She was shocked at first, then she marched furiously into your father’s room to complain. Papa came back and looked at the picture of the near-naked model in front of the novel and told Mama that the cover did not reflect what was inside the book.
That was your first victory.
You started to hide novels between your Bible and when the sermons became less interesting and the words came out slurry to your ears, you would begin to thumb across the novels, reading voraciously.
You started hanging out with the youths after church, sharing stories, sharing hugs, giving high fives; you always laughed the loudest.
You started using words like: ‘Guy, how far?’ ‘OMG’. Papa frowned and told you sternly that she who lives in pleasure is dead while she lives.
Yet, you continued. That was your beginning.
It’s been years since you secured admission into school; it’s been four years actually and you would be graduating next year and heading to Law school.
You sat up in your bed, reminiscing on the happenings of last night. You are in a blue pyjamas, your hair is twisted in kinky curls, you are playing Bruno Mars on your iPod and there is an opened Nora Roberts novel on the chair across your room.
You were doing the same thing Papa abhorred, the same thing that made Papa tell Aunty Chikamso to stop visiting as she was corrupting his holy children.
Last night, Papa slapped you for wearing pyjamas for night prayer, you stared at him for a long time and flung the devotional manual across the room.
He sat there, stunned beyond words while you breathed heavily.
Mama looked like a ghost, you knew she would be binding the devil that has possessed you with an everlasting curse.
“You must obey me as long as you’re in my house,” Papa had said when he found his voice at last.
“I am an adult, and you see Christianity is not this pretentious life you live.”
You stormed into your room, mad. You had seen it all, the hypocritical life they lived, you have had more than a fair share of it too.
Mama used brown shade foundation to cover the telltale marks of Papa’s slaps; she smiled toothly when Papa called her the perfect wife and boasted that he had never had a quarrel with her.
You winced as the lie hammered at your heart and you longed to jump on the podium, wrench the microphone from his hand and expose his deceits.
Tonight, you were done. Done with the pretences, with the hide-and-seek game, you were tired of it all and you wanted freedom.
You wanted to breathe again.
A timid knock came on your door and you got up, twisting your buttocks this way and that and opened the door.
It was Mama. She came in, walking like a nervous kid, twisting her fingers and chewing her fingernails. You sat there a long time, not saying anything, then she began to cry, to cry, to cry.
She cried for a long time and then, she stopped as abruptly as she had began. “Thank you, nne,” she said and embraced you.
You stood there with her, holding, touching, knowing, then she left quietly as a shadow.
You lay back in your bed and smiled. You took a deep breath and it was free of tension, free of crease, free of pretence, it was freedom.
Tomorrow, the alarm would go off by 4.59 am and there would be no morning devotion.