‘Road Safety’ short fiction by Thomas Pia

Thomas Pia has been awarded certificates of merit in The Pushkin Prize, The National Galleries Creative Writing Prize, and the Foyle Young Poet’s Prize. He studied Chemistry at Imperial College London for two years, and then spent the following 2 years volunteering in South Africa before returning to Scotland to continue his studies at the University of Glasgow.

Every time Pastor Dube removed the handkerchief from the top pocket of his waistcoat, he made sure to do it with a flourish which would display to full effect the gold stitched outline of Christ on the cross which was embroidered along the diagonals. The three longest edges of the cross stretched into the corners, which left one corner empty. In this empty corner a halo hovered and artfully stitched around this halo were Pastor Dube’s initials. 

He carefully dabbed at his spacious forehead. Preaching was demanding work, particularly in a church hall with corrugated metal walls and containing a congregation numbering close to two hundred.  Pulling myself out of the sticky plastic pews, to echo back the pastor’s bellowed ‘Hallelujahs’ was a particular challenge and since I’d been urged to take a seat in the very front row, along with the most passionate worshippers, I was constantly rising and sitting, sometimes a little out of synch, but doing my best to fit in. The moments I dreaded were when the band struck up and everybody around me started ecstatically shaking their bodies and ululating. 

During one of these musical interludes, when I was shuffling out a non-committal two-step, the boy sitting behind me had grabbed my shoulders and, spinning me around, attempted to teach me how to move with a bit of rhythm. However after a few awkward minutes he realised I wasn’t channelling the Lord quite to the same extent as he and his friends, so he politely excused himself, and turned his attention back to the little girl next to him, who’d been jumping around on her chair, desperate to get bounced around on his shoulders.

Occasionally braver members of the congregation would dash towards the front and prostrate themselves at the pastor’s smartly polished feet, fumbling for a trouser leg to grip. He’d initially greeted these eager worshippers with a benign smile and bestowed a prayer on them, gently tapping out the sign of the cross on the back of their heads with one of his heavily ringed fingers, but as the sermon wore on I noticed the smile begin to flicker and the hand came down with a little more might than was strictly necessary, causing a number of the blessed to scurry back to their pews massaging their heads.

Pastor Dube was most in his element when preaching. A great fan of vehicle themed metaphors, he was able to capture all manner of God’s graces in a variety of familiar and unremarkable objects. 

‘It is our duty as Christians…’ he had begun, before flourishing the handkerchief. 

‘…our duty, to save souls! And if we are not saving souls, we do our church a disservice!’

As he preached, he paced, stabbing a plump finger heavenward when he mentioned ‘the Lord’ and then drilling said finger into his velvet waistcoat when he spoke of ‘our duty’. 

‘This church,’ and the finger whipped around in a semi circle encompassing all of us, ‘is either succeeding or failing in that mission. There is no in-between. We either press forward…or we fall behind.’

‘Some pastors will tell you that they are happy when they see the same faces every Sunday, but when I look out here and recognise every single one of you, I am disappointed.’

At this point his voice cracked ever so slightly and he lowered his head, as if to contemplate just how far his flock had fallen. The hall lay perfectly still, even the younger children who regularly cried through respectful silences, seemed to grasp the severity of the situation. A smartly dressed young woman sitting a couple of chairs down from me, who had been taking notes throughout the sermon, set her notepad and pen neatly in front of her and rose to her feet, smoothing out imaginary rumples in her skirt. 

‘What can we do pastor? Tell us! Tell us how we may better serve the Lord, and we will try our hardest.’

She had announced her question boldly, projecting her voice so it echoed on a fraction of a second longer than the question lasted. However Pastor Dube showed no outward sign of having heard her, instead slowly and deliberately running a finger over the stitching in his handkerchief, as he gazed intently into its folds.

‘There is an answer, a very simple answer and we all know it. It’s right here.’

He’d walked over to the young woman who’d remained standing, and placing one hand on her shoulder and another over her heart, gently sat her back in her seat.

‘Life is a car journey, and God, he is our seatbelt. You would not drive without a seat belt.’

I was a little surprised to hear fervent murmurs of assent swell around me. 

‘Yebo!’

‘Yebo-Yes!!’

‘My life is in his hands!’

‘Hallelujah!’

Nodding his approval, Pastor Dube surveyed the bobbing heads, making sure everybody grasped his message, then inserted his thumbs into the lapels of his waistcoat, indicating he was ready to continue. The hall fell silent again, as people shushed their less attentive neighbours and focused all their attention on his next words. 

‘And is it not our duty, to make sure our children wear their seatbelt too?’

‘YEBO!’

‘And is it not, in fact, a matter of law, that it is also our duty, as the driver, sitting at that wheel, to ensure that every single passenger in our car is wearing their seatbelt?’

‘Yes Pastor!’

‘It is the law!’

I looked along the row noting the imagery seemed to have taken hold with a few of the younger generation miming strapping themselves in. The young woman with the note-pad was an exception. She continued to scribble away in her note book, but I imagined she was probably sketching out the interior of a car and labelling the safety features with the Holy Trinity. 

‘We said at the beginning of this year that each one of us could harvest ten, yes only ten, souls. And I still believe that allof us can! I also know that sometimes there is somebody we need to save, somebody who needs our help, but the devilstands in their way, blocking the very doors of this church!’

He put a particularly grave emphasis on the word ‘devil’, and a wail carried through the hall in response. Then as he motioned towards the doorway, every head snapped back to check a horned figure had not materialised there and slipped his trident through the door handles. I had also looked, caught up in the act of conforming and when we all turned back the pastor was beckoning to the back of the hall. As he continued with the sermon, a series of boys in matching blue blazers assembled behind him, each bearing a plastic bucket. He started making his way down the line, squaring the boys’ already rigidly set shoulders and nodding at each one’s immaculate turnout.

‘These sinners who cannot make it here today, they need God. They need his strength. And it is up to us to ask on their behalf. I pray every day, but God gets a lot of prayers and he may overlook our brothers and sisters, friends and family, who do not…’

He snapped his fingers and the boys spread out, positioning themselves, one at the end of every row.

‘But for those of us who are poor with our words, we can be rich for them, with our hearts, our prayers and our tithes. Remember all wealth is thanks to Him, and so if your son, your brother, your husband, tells you he’d rather lie-in on Sunday, maybe sleeping off a hangover, well you can still ask God to love him, to bless him with a good job, a good salary and healthy children!’

The boys began to edge along the rows and each person they stopped in front of dutifully dug into their pockets and deposited something in the bucket. Some would flourish a wad of bills, hoping to catch the pastor’s eye, while others nervously darted their hand out and squirmed in their seats if their contribution rattled in the bucket. 

When it came to my turn, I only had a ten and a fifty in my wallet. I popped the ten in and then fixed my gaze on the top button of the blazer in front of me. The boy lingered and I could hear the bucket continue to make little foraying shakes in my direction, but eventually it swung along to scoop up the contents of the waving billfold next to me. 

Once all buckets had made their way back to the front, the sermon wrapped up with one last zealous song and dance. I took this opportunity to wriggle my way out through the undulating sea of bodies into the carpark. Lindoh had arranged to pick me up and thankfully he was already waiting there, in his mud smattered bakkie, when I emerged. I hopped up into the front seat next to him and reached behind me, grasping around in thin air, before he laughingly reminded me,  

‘No seat belts, bafo, only this.’

He flicked the shaman’s necklace – an interlinked row of beads, feathers and stones – which hung from the wing mirror and then noticing something in its reflection, angled it towards me. A column of blue blazers was marching out of a side entrance to the church and loading their buckets into the back of a gleaming chrome Range Rover.  As we turned out onto the main road, I barely had time to read it’s plates  – PA57OR01.

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