WANJURAH: How my atheist spirit was haunted by a ‘headless voice’


WANJURAH: How my atheist spirit was haunted by a 'headless voice'

The narrow street teeming with crowds milling in and out of its souvenir shops empties into an open square just outside the great cathedral. 

Even on a late Wednesday afternoon, the square was a riot of activities. The giant church built nearly 1000 years ago is easily the star attraction in York city. Newly-weds come here for a photo-op as if merely standing on its hallowed grounds insures unions from the beckoning vagaries of marriage.
 
I noticed, for instance, an excited bride dragging to the spot a gawkily tall groom in a dull-grey morning coat that reminded me of Kijana Wamalwa wedding suit. As soon as the cameraman had made a few clicks, the man freed himself from his new wife and hurriedly disappeared into the nearby bar perhaps for a quick drink to ease the tedium of the ceremony.  
    
The abandoned bride was left standing a few meters from a banner proclaiming its wielder had just landed from Tokyo in a magic flight. It was an outrageous lie to make right under the arches of the imposing church. The claimant was trying to blow away disbelief with mass production of soapy bubbles to the delight of gathered children.
 
But the bubbles also flew with the interest of many adults. I, for instance, found myself nostalgic for my daughter who, like many kids, can’t have enough of them. If calculated, the money wasted on Sunday afternoons indulging children with soapy water in cheap made-in-China plastic tubes would be colossal enough to merit an immediate ban of bubbles!
 
I was pleasantly surprised when my company, herself engrossed in admiration of the fountain of bubbles, suggested we sit down on the low concrete wall bridging the gardens and the road to enjoy the spectacle. Still young and understandably selfish, she thinks of children as an insufferable burden that nature and evil men conspire to visit on women.
 
Her suggestion couldn’t have been timelier. I was fatigued from hours of walking about and the stodginess of a rare good lunch had slowed my legs and brain to a lumber. I would have preferred an immediate siesta given an opportunity.
 
Siestas are a habit I have acquired since reading that Sir Charles Njonjo attributes his age-defying body to the practice. I gather it is routine for British aristocrats of fortune. But since I may wait forever to be rich, I have in the meanwhile signed up to the nap club while hoping that I, too, will wake up rich someday.
 
Watching the mass of bubbles rising up to scatter in the four directions of the York cathedral filled me with a strange, eerie feeling. When a few huge bubbles blew my direction and one or two landed on my trousers, I was seized by sudden religious or more accurately, repentant mood.
 
It was really déjà vu. I recalled feeling the same when as naughty kids, a friend and I had exploited an opportunity to clean the church on a Saturday afternoon to sneak into the vestibule to steal church wine meant for the Holy Communion. Perhaps because we gulped it quickly, I thereafter felt dizzy and experienced a bad headache.
 
My childish brain went into panic. I was convinced God was punishing me for theft. But I also recalled the Sunday school teacher always preached that God loves immediate repentance once one appreciates his sins preferably by praying in a quiet place.
 
Overwhelmed by guilt, I branched into the bushes for a moment of penitence. But the wine must have got the better of me because I fell asleep. When I woke up, it was late and more immediate fears of the dark and mum’s certain scolding for staying late relegated heavenly retribution for stealing church wine into a distant concern.
 
I had not stolen anything from the Church on Wednesday for sure. But lured by the sheer majesty of the cathedral and egged on by my friend, I had joined the throngs of tourists walking past its wide doors for a feel of its sanctum.
 
Its inside is a marvel of architecture. The huge columns rise in endless height to images of the Virgin Mary, the magi and Jesus making a path between the clouds on his exit from the world upon resurrection on its roof. At the front, and towering over the tabernacle, are giant crosses. For believers, the unique design evinces a deity watching over the worshippers below.
 
Even the atheist in me was left feeling infinitesimal. It is as if an Amorite had strayed into a Sanhedrin session. For a flitting moment, I felt like I was experiencing my own Jonah and the whale scenario only that instead of the whale, a bus had delivered me to the cathedral doors. I quickly walked out to gather my faith in not believing.
 
But hours after my hurried exit, I was still traumatised by the cathedral aura. Yet it was not the first time I was spending time in church. As an atheist who is fascinated by pre-Gothic architecture, I spend a lot of time admiring ancient churches and mosques. There is an allure in them that bespeaks of our ancestors construction genius.
 
Now seated across the cathedral watching the bubble man do his thing, I was suddenly seized by thoughts of my own death. Not really the fear of the inevitable but weird thoughts about my own funeral. I wondered if anyone, for instance, would pray for my soul and what such a prayer would feature.
To kill the disturbing thoughts, I decided to saunter around and excused myself from my friend. I had only walked a few absent-minded steps past the ice cream vendor next to the hats and sunglasses laid out along the lane when it happened.
 
I think the voice said “Hey sir!” I can’t remember for sure because I was preoccupied with fending off memories of the cathedral. It came from a hat perched on top of two thin wires spotting sunglasses. Below, was the torso of a faceless man in a pink shirt over a coat, the legs snaking out to the veranda to reveal a pair of sneakers.
 
Seeing my initial alarm, the voice said more emphatically: “Yes, you!” Growing up in the village, we looked forward to the monthly mobile cinema that almost always featured Jesus in many of the movies. 
 
The voice I was hearing on Wednesday evening sounded like the voice in those movies. My friend swears I screamed. I have no recollection of that. But I can admit to being very scared and briefly imagining the call was from up the skies. In truth, it was cheap prank from a street comedian!

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Story By Jeeh Wanjura
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