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Tolu Ogunlesi

Tolu Ogunlesi

Ogunlesi was born in 1982. He is the author of a collection of poetry Listen to the Geckos Singing From a Balcony (Bewrite Books, UK, 2004). His fiction and poetry have appeared in Wasafiri, The Obituary Tango (Caine Prize Anthology 2006), Sable, Orbis, Eclectica, and elsewhere, and are forthcoming in Poesia and Jelly Paint. In 2007 he won a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg poetry prize. He currently lives in Lagos, Nigeria, and works 8 - 5 as a management consultant.

 The Vow
Jaiyeola Desmond will never be able to look at a clergyman without imagining how close he was to becoming one. But this particular Sunday morning, a new unease almost masks the customary wistfulness. He finds himself desperately wishing that the organist will put more verve into his playing, and disprove the growing suspicion (in the rank and file of the Cathedral congregation) that after forty-plus years he is really getting too old for the job.

Jaiyeola instinctively imagines the pain of the frustration the organist is putting him through to be the emotional or mental equivalent of a heart-attack. He thinks he should know; three of his closest friends have succumbed to heart-attacks in the last three months.

At his age, sixty going on sixty one, he should be addressed as Chief Desmond, but he likes to imagine himself a bohemian, a mild one at least. He has a string of chieftaincy titles, just like the typical Fellow of the Island Club, he even has an MON that President Babangida gave him in '89, but he prefers to retain the Mister. Chief would be too weighty on him, like those expensive aso-okes that newly married couples foolishly yet merrily burden themselves with at their wedding parties.

He also has a permanent seat in the Cathedral, like most of his friends – he donated the pew to the Cathedral to mark his fiftieth birthday – middle row, third seat from the front, with a most impressive view of both the vestry doorway and the nervous dramas that begin to screen (without fail) five minutes before the start of every service.

Mrs. Desmond sits next to him, her gele brushing his head occasionally. She sits to his left, leaving a generous gap between them, a gap that’d have been larger were it not for her realization (arrived at in an oddly ingenious twist of reasoning) of the need to acknowledge and honor the fact that they've been married thirty years. She used to be ashamed of sitting in that manner, even though no one would notice, and would tuck her handbag and Bible there, in appeasement, but now she feels that the space should be allowed to exist, a mature space, an updated metaphor for their marriage.

Her husband – perhaps he is aware, perhaps not – doesn't make any effort to close the gap. If he has to talk to her – whisper a comment about the need for the Vicar to do something about his paunch; or something about the unironed choir gowns – he leans uncomplainingly across the chasm, to her. He never makes any effort to shift his body closer to her. She of course reciprocates by leaning slightly to, towards him, in a bid to mask, tone down, the noisy yawn of the gap. It occurs to her that if she were not the wife of a man who owned his own seat in church, she wouldn't have the liberty she now exercises in designing space.


Sitting beside his mother and sister in one of the front rows of the St. Paul's Anglican Church, Igbo-Elerin, many years ago, watching his father bore the eighty-member congregation – the majority of whom consisted of septuagenarians- and-above whose coming to church week after week was geared mainly towards letting the world know that they had stayed death's power for yet another week – Jaiyeola had looked forward to a future bundled up in Vicars' robes, lofty grammar and an Old Testament mien. Not that he had eagerly looked forward to it, but when he looked forward, that was all he saw.

His father's father had been the first Anglican convert (there had been a Baptist Church a few years before the Anglican Church) in Igbo-Elerin, and donated the choir robes and the first set of pews in the Church. He had gone on to donate his first-born son to the Lord, and covenanted with God that every first son in his lineage would serve in the vineyard, into the third and the fourth generations, and even beyond. But circumstances released Jaiyeola from this ancestral vow. At the time when he should have gone on to the seminary in Odo-Elewu, sixty miles from Igbo-Elerin to commence his ecclesiastical tutelage, there had been a doctrinal rumpus in the Anglican community at Igbo-Elerin. By the time the dust settled, a faction of the Church had wandered off from the tower of Babel, and a brand new church (The Reformed Anglican Mission of God) had arisen in their midst; leaving behind at the mother Church seven members, which included Vicar Desmond and his young family.

This had necessitated the shutting down of the Church until further notice, culminating in a temporary renunciation of Christianity by the poor Vicar. By the time he wandered back into the faith, this time as local representative of an English Missionary Society, his son Desmond Jr. was comfortably settled in Christ's School, Ado-Ekiti, feasting at the table of western-style secular education framed nicely within a missionary setting. Two for the price of one.


Lulled into a false sense of ease by the rasping baritone of the vicar, the droning of the dusty ceiling fans, restless shuffling in the pews, the sound of falling bibles and hymnbooks, Jaiyeola permits himself to forget the organist’s incompetence.

Seeing their master's mind vacated by the usurper, the old, nagging thoughts crowd back in with glee, bringing along with them their constantly updated artists-impressions of what life would have been like had Jaiyeola not run away from his grandfather’s vow.

The indiscretions that mark his life like coloured pins on a war general's map of enemy locations would never have happened. Or at least they would have been milder, tamer. A life encased in The Cassock would have reined a significant bulk of foolishness in. The ArrowBank scandal, for example, would never have occurred. He would never have been tempted with God's money the way man's money had appealed to his baser instincts.

Blessing, his love-child, would have remained a concept in God's creation department, not a fourteen-year-old stubbornly-pulsing blip on the radar of an almost picture-perfect marriage.

And by now, at his age, he would most certainly have become a Bishop. The Right Reverend Jaiyeola Desmond, Bishop of the Anglican Communion of Nigeria. Spiritual overseer and consultant to Kings and Governors and Senators and Ministers. All of those enemies he had made in the course of a secular life would have been his subjects in the vineyard.

And of course, as a Bishop he'd long ago have discouraged the Vicars under him from too-long sermons. Wasn’t that why the Anglican population across the country was dwindling rapidly? Take this morning's sermon for example. The Vicar is still speaking, still flipping page after endless page of his sermon notes, the tone and measure of his voice showing no signs of tapering off. And the last enemy that shall be conquered is death.

Death was all he had to look forward to, now. He has accomplished what many, in multiple lifetimes, would only see in their wildest dreams. Few would match him whether in his errors, or his successes.

Perhaps death would be the beginning of another life.

And the last enemy – that shall – conquer – is – death. Alleluia!

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