by Jacqueline Ewers
I push the key in the door. Kicking off my shoes, I head for the kitchen. Most nights I can’t be bothered to make the effort to cook a proper meal. The microwave pings as my toast pops out of the toaster. I pour baked beans over brown bread. The smell is comforting. I settle down in front of the telly. The evening passes as I watch several episodes of Say Yes to the Dress. Getting ready for bed, I pull a long satin nightdress out of a drawer full of negligees. After slipping it on, I bundle up in a cardigan. I wouldn’t be this cold if I had a husband to snuggle up to. I put socks on and slump beside my bed to pray. God, have you forgotten me?
I’ve been praying for a husband for years. I’m fed up of the repeated chorus ‘I am praying God will send you a husband, Sister Maxine. Wait on the Lord and be of good courage.’ Today was the worst. After Pastor Kendal’s sermon: Don’t Worry Your Boaz is Around the Corner, everyone came to encourage me. I wanted to tell them to bog off. God, why haven’t you sent someone for me? It is so unfair. Disappointment climbs into bed with me. As I fill the empty space on my right with pillows, tears fall on the duvet cover.
We were a tight-knit church youth group until members started getting married. It was great to begin with. Sometimes I was bridesmaid two or three times a year. But by twenty-eight, I was in the group of women no one chose to marry. By forty, friends stopped looking out for guys for me saying ‘I was too picky’. Others said my ‘lack of faith’ was the reason I was still single.
I sit with Amanda in Tuesday night Prayer Meeting expecting the same routine; a few songs followed by prayer. Pastor Amy gives an exhortation entitled Trust God, Your Ram is in the Thicket with great animation and enthusiasm. Voices mingle as members respond to the message.
‘Praise the Lord!’
Suddenly, Pastor Amy calls me to the altar. Sweat beads form on my upper lip as I try to avoid the glances of the others. Terrified, I make my way wondering what she’s going to say. Pastor Amy shouts from the podium,
‘The Lord says you will be married within eighteen months.’
Stunned, I lift my hands in praise. ‘Thank you God, finally you’ve heard my prayer.’
The next evening while scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, a notification pops up. Shiloh Church is holding a speed dating evening tomorrow. God, will I find him there? I register for the event.
The small church hall is decorated with clusters of red and white balloons with tables covered in contrasting red and white paper table covers. There’s a low buzz of excited voices. I feel as if I have arrived late even though I am ten minutes early. Ten smartly dressed men casually discuss sport amongst themselves. I see nine impeccably presented women clustered in groups of three. They seem to know each other. I note their smiles fixed in place to catch the eye of a potential mate. I approach one group saying ‘hello’. Heat rises to my face as I sense their scrutiny. I’m so glad I changed into something smart before leaving work. A bell rings. The room becomes quiet. A fifty something woman introduces herself as Sister Yvonne. Her hair is swept back in a simple pony tail and her face make up free. She prays to open the evening asking for God’s direction.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, when you came in you were given a number. Please sit at that table. The bell will ring after 10 minutes. Gentlemen, you will then move onto the next table in a clockwise direction.’
I am quickly bored with number one. He only speaks about his Lexus car. On close inspection number two has pencilled in his eyebrows. A definite no. Number three just quotes scripture the whole time. Number four, doesn’t make eye contact. I think he’s a bit shifty rather than shy. The fleshy gaps between the straining buttons of Number five’s shirt put me off. Six makes it clear that he is the centre of his world. Seven is looking for a woman to replace his mother. Eight becomes uninterested when I say I don’t like football. Nine is Pete. Our conversation flows with ease. He’s a Pentecostal. Tick. Working. Tick. Funny. Tick. Looking for a wife. Huge tick. God is this him?’ I don’t really engage with Number ten because I’m thinking about Pete. The final bell rings. Some men duck for the door, while others linger. I quickly look at my phone pretending not to notice Pete coming towards me.
‘Hey Maxine, you fancy grabbing something to eat tomorrow evening?’
‘Yeah, why not?’ I say, trying to mask my excitement. He gives me his number and we arrange to meet at Tooting Bec Station at 8pm. “Thank you Jesus, I didn’t expect to meet my husband so soon.” I sing “God my provider” all the way home, fantasising about my wedding.
It takes me all day to get ready. I choose an outfit to show off my figure. Hair freshly styled, flawless Mac face, I head out for Tooting. The thrill of dating bubbles away feeding my excitement. ‘I can’t believe I’ve found him already. Thank you Lord’.
‘Hey Maxi, you look great.’
‘Thanks, where are we are we going?’
‘Oh, it’s not far.’
We chat chirpily as we walk down the road. ‘We’re here,’ he announces. My breath catches in my throat. As we go inside, the Chicken Cottage menu looms over me. He throws the words ‘Dutch yeah?’ over his shoulder at me, and then places his order. Not wanting to look as if I can’t pay for my meal, I order a wrap and a drink. I watch him shovel a handful of chips in his mouth. As he talks about himself, bits of chips fall to the table. He absentmindedly picks them up putting them in his mouth. ‘This cannot be the one, no bloody way.’ I try to be pleasant but when the chicken fat runs down his chin dripping onto the table, I get up mumbling something about feeling sick and leave. Deflated, wondering about the promise of a husband, I make my way home, blocking his number.
As I brown the meat, the spicy curry powder, mingled with ginger and garlic waft throughout my flat promising a tasty meal. Rice simmers away releasing its buttery aroma. It’s been so long since I cooked a proper meal. Amanda chops cucumber.
‘Did you hear? Marj is pregnant.’
‘Because she’s single she’ll have to give up her post as Sunday School Superintendent. Such a shame, she loves those kids.’
‘Now she’ll finally have one of her own. I know what it’s like to be sick of being the godmother and never the mother. Do you think she did it on purpose?’
‘Who knows?... I blame our church rules; no sex before marriage; no co-habitation; no marrying non-Christians. I feel smothered.’
‘This purity thing ain’t easy.’
‘Well, I got myself a rubber friend to keep me company.’ Amanda confesses as she sips her wine.
‘What you saying to me? You know that’s a no-no.’
‘What’s a girl to do?’
‘I’m keeping myself pure for my husband.’ I say, not mentioning crying many nights wondering where he is.
‘You do just that. God is faithful. The prophecy will come to pass.’
We continue chatting during our meal. I savour every mouthful. I had forgotten how much I love my own cooking and eating with company. After Amanda leaves I wash up the dishes mulling over my secret encounter with Brother Barry.
I first noticed him visiting in a Sunday morning service three months ago. His smooth baritone voice caught my attention. I admired his dapper look and fudge-coloured skin. ‘God, is this him?’ I approached him striking up a conversation. His Paul Smith aftershave gently tickled my nostrils. He became a regular visitor. ‘Can I have your number?’ he asked one day. ‘I just want to check you get home safely.’ No guy had ever bothered about my safety before.
‘Yes of course.’
He was charming. I felt special and valued.
‘That colour on your nails accentuates your beautiful long fingers.’
‘That scarf you’re wearing looks fantastic. It compliments your eyes.’
Our dates were incredible. Tea at The Shard and Cocktails at Maxwell’s. A far cry from Chicken Cottage. I loved being a couple. ‘Please God let this be the one.’ I subscribe to Wedding Magazine.
‘Let’s not tell anyone we’re dating just yet. It’s much more exciting.’
‘Ok,’ I said wondering why.
After a while, he asked if he could spend the night at my flat. When I said no, he ignored my calls and messages. A week later I decided to go to his house. I rang the doorbell. When he opened the door I confronted him.
‘Why are you ignoring me?’.
‘As you’re here, come in. I know what you need.’ he said reaching for my breasts.
‘For God’s sake B. Stop it.’ I knock his hand away.
‘Max, I don’t know why you’re carrying on like your fanny is paved with gold and lined with diamonds. I should be able get me some sex anytime, I’ve earned it. Those dates were investments, it’s payback time.’
‘If it wasn’t for the grace of God, I would cuss out your backside.’ He slams the door in my face. I kick the door shouting ‘Arsehole.’
I was furious, mostly at myself. I can’t believe I imagined us walking down the aisle. I found out later that Barry had slept with a couple of my single friends at church. Now, I’m glad it was only my temper I lost with the bugger. Drying the dishes I ask ‘God, was the prophecy really a word from you?’
On my way to buy hard dough bread and bun, this guy walks up to the 250 bus stop, T-shirt exposing toned muscles. His eyes are a striking caramel against his rich chestnut skin. I fancy him straight away.
‘You been waiting long?’ he says smiling.
‘Only a few minutes.’
‘Happy Easter. I’m on my way to Brixton for bun and bread. I can imagine the queue when I get there. I hope the bus comes soon.’
‘I’m going to the bakery too… sorry for being forward but you sound Jamaican.’ The bus arrives, I get on first.
‘Yes, I grew up there but came back to London a while ago. Have you been?’
‘My parents used to take me when I was younger. Beautiful island.’ I’m chuffed when he sits next to me. As we chat about Jamaican Easter traditions, I check his wedding finger. Empty. I think to hell with it and ask for his number.
‘Amanda, I’ve met this guy. We’ve been dating for a few weeks now.’
‘Really? I can’t believe you’ve kept him a secret.’
‘I wanted to see if things would work out. Guess what? He’s a Jamaican minister.’
‘Shut…up, a minister.’
‘I know right. He’s Baptist, but he’s sweet like condensed milk. Pray he’s the one.
He makes a mean steam snapper, stuffed with okra, and callaloo steeped in butter. Oh my word, when I ate the fish I embarrassed myself. It was so tasty I sucked the juice from the fish head.’ We talk about Jamie for the next two hours.
Daily I pray ‘God let him be the one.’ Dating is fun. It’s the first time I’ve felt loved: Surprise flowers at work, and unexpected gifts. We laugh comparing the similarities and differences between Jamaican and Black British culture. I’m constantly learning something new. I look forward to our evenings together which always end in prayer.
‘What’s up? It’s the middle of the night?’ Amanda answers her phone sleepily.
‘Sorry, I know it’s late but I can’t wait ‘til morning…I’m engaged.’
‘Max. That’s fantastic! Tell me everything. How did he ask? What’s your ring like?’
‘This evening we went to watch the World Championship athletics. Jamie asked me to marry him just after Usain Bolt won his last race. Fans were standing cheering, chanting and waving the Jamaican flag. The atmosphere was electric. It took me two seconds to say yes. My ring is platinum with green and white diamonds. So beautiful. I can’t believe I’m finally getting married. I’m too excited to sleep, you coming over?’
‘I’ll be there in half an hour.’
When she arrives we squeal, drink champagne, dance around and tumble down giggling like little girls.
When Pastor Kendal announces my engagement, brethren dance in the aisles praising God for answered prayers and the fulfilment of the prophecy. Some older sisters struggle to move their arthritis ridden bodies so bang their walking sticks on the carpet.
Today, is the final fitting for my dress. The sweetheart neckline trimmed with scalloped lace emphasises my bust line. The shimmering diamanté crystals and beads on the bodice hug my body. My image takes my breath away. I run my hand over the weighty satin of the skirt, such a luxurious feel. ‘Jamie will over the moon when he sees you. You look breath taking.’ Amanda says.
‘You expect me to leave my church after over thirty years Jamie?’ I shout, no regard for others in the coffee shop.
‘Yes, of course. You know it’s tradition. I want you to serve with me in my church.’
‘Why can’t you serve at my church?’
‘Maxine, stop your stupidness. I want you by my side as my wife at home and in ministry. If you can’t do that then it’s simple, you’re not ready to be my wife. Let me know what you decide.’ He walks out the door.
I wrestle, wondering am I ready for marriage, to compromise and give up some of my independence? Do I have what it takes to leave the church I know so well despite its flaws?
‘You look dreadful. Bags under your eyes, hair matted together. What’s going on?’ Amanda enquires.
‘Jamie’s expects me to join his church after we’re married. I’m scared of change. I haven’t slept properly or been out for days.’
‘Are you out of your mind? You knew all along you would have to go to his church, it’s tradition. You would pass up marrying Jamie for what exactly? He really does love you, even the blind can see that. Look at all the times he’s put your choices first. Fix up Maxine, stop being selfish. Call Jamie and tell him you’ll follow him to his church. After all, you two belong together.’
As we sign the marriage certificate, Jamie declares ’You’re the answer to my prayers. I love you Mrs Thomas.’
I love being Jamie’s wife. We’re both getting used to married life. It’s been good. I’m quite settled in his church now. The members are really nice to me. I hardly see the old youth group but Amanda keeps me up to date on our nights out. It’s funny, Jamie really did turn out to be my unexpected ‘ram in the thicket’.
About the author:
"The Secret" by Jacqueline Robinson available from www.jewelmarkpress.co.uk and Amazon