By Alvin Peters
As I walked towards the open doors of the church, I felt the tension in the air. The same thing happened the previous week and I observed once again that there were people outside whispering. I knew the reason.
He would probably be sitting there in the last pew. His presence concerned me and the other parishioners. The absence of others around him was striking as well. No-one sat in the same pew nor the next two in front of him.
In a church that is usually filled with gregarious, happy people, ‘Mr Cutlash’ was utterly alone.
Ever since I was a child, I feared him. I listened with trepidation as my family and neighbours spoke about him. His face was all ugly and twisted they said, expressing his anger and hatred for the world.
What made him so filled with rage was not known to me. When I asked, I was told that it was best to stay far away from him.
In school, he became a morbid inspiration for a game of catch. One person was chosen to be Mr Cutlash and proceeded to chase the others around the playground pretending to wave wildly his cutlass which was rumoured to thirst for blood. Others laughed but I prayed that I would never meet him alone.
One day, I did have such an encounter. It was Lent and I was walking home with a bag of Mrs Hector’s toolums. Sweets were forbidden by my mother during that solemn period which meant of course that savouring them was even more mouth-watering.
As I absentmindedly looked at the bag, I bumped into him. He glowered at me with his bloodshot eyes. His face was twisted even more than usual. His rancid odour seared my nostrils.
At first, I was paralysed but then the thoughts of his cutlass tasting my blood made me cry in horror. I ran home as quickly as my little legs would carry me. In the safety of my bedroom, I prayed for forgiveness and thanked God that my life was spared. It was a long time before I ate toolums again…
A week after that incident, I asked my parents where he lived so I could avoid having to cross his path again. My father shrugged his shoulders and said that he thought that people like him didn’t have a home. I wondered if he had a family. My mother declared that God-forsaken people like him didn’t deserve one and then told me to mind my own business.
A few years later, we no longer heard any news about him. He seemed to have vanished.
My parents and neighbours no longer spoke about him. It seemed as though he disappeared off the face of the Earth. The fate of ‘God-forsaken people’ perhaps? The terrifying thoughts I had as a child eventually faded away into a distant memory.
Then last week those memories came rushing back when I saw him in the back pew. He was much older, clean shaven and decently dressed. He sat solemnly, staring at the altar.
In my mind’s eye, however, I saw the dirty man with unkempt hair, terrifying face, and eyes. I smelled the phantom stink of sweat and alcohol. Then suddenly, the lay minister’s welcome from the podium shook me from my thoughts and I anxiously got to a seat.
After Mass, the churchyard was unusually quiet. People anxiously bade their farewells, glanced at Mr Cutlash, and then hurriedly left. I wondered: where had he been all these years? What happened to him? And most important of all…why was he here?
I approached Fr Stephen and asked him. He said, “Are those questions really that important?”. Hiding behind what I thought were the sentiments of the crowd, I replied, “We like this church. It’s home.”
Father said as he squeezed my shoulder before he walked back inside, “Then let’s make sure we all feel that this is our home.”
And now, after I received Communion and walked to my seat, I wondered why this so called ‘God-forsaken man’ was here. Do we…no…do I want him here? Then I remembered what Fr Stephen told me. Maybe after such a long time, this God-forsaken man wants this place to be his home, too.
I asked myself, “What kind of home is this if we…if I…desired to have him so far away?” Trembling inwardly, I went to the same pew where he sat and knelt to pray.
After Mass ended, I remained there for a while. It was unusual once again to see these affable people leave so quietly. They kept a wide berth from where we sat. A few gave me quick glances possibly warning me that I will regret my decision. For a moment, I hoped that I didn’t either.
When the church was almost empty, he said firmly, still staring at the altar, “You doh have to sit here yuh know.”
“I know” I replied, my voice a little shaky, “but I want to.”
“Yuh eh fraid me?” “A little,” then I said, hopefully with some courage, “But I don’t want to be afraid anymore.”
“Dat’s good,” he said and then continued softly, “I doh want to neither.”
We sat there for some time. Then he said, “Meh name is Harry.”
“Hello Mr Harry, my name is Samuel. See you next week.”