Read time: 10 mins

A Hole in the Shirt

by Mammatli Agnes Molefi
23 March 2023

The first time I passed out, the doctor could not believe that it was the church. He said people go to church to heal; then why was I sick? He asked about my occupation. I am a therapist. He thought I took people’s problems and made them mine, that sometimes therapists need therapy too. I was not practising at the time. Maybe I am an incurable sinner, or maybe I am too human for The Foundation Church of Christ. Emma got there before me.

As I empty her field backpack on this old crimson chair next to the old man with a green bag who is slowly dozing off, a strong fragrance of sweat fills up the tiny, loosely furnished room. It has been long since I felt this close to Emma. The stench on the white dress she wore the first time I met her brings her closer than I ever thought she could be. The conversations we have lately are from an arm’s-length distance. It’s almost like she is in this laundromat with me, breathing. Everything else in the room disappears. The old man with a green bag next to me seems to evaporate. The laundromat has stopped humming and buzzing. It is just us, the two of us, closer than ever.

In the side pocket there is her driver’s licence. It feels like she has left it here to let me know that it is her. That even though the clothes were handed to me by the deacon’s wife, she is here with me. She is two years younger than me, and she does not look like anyone I would date. Her broad nose and big lips are not the kind I would kiss, yet I feel my muscles unclenching, my heart rate slowing and levels of the cortisol dropping. I look around, and there are only the three motionless black and gold metal boxes. I hold one of her checkered shirts, and there is a hole in the left shoulder. I put my finger through the hole.

I put the shirt back into the backpack with the rest of her clothes, the head scarves, long baggy dresses and socks too. I hold the driver’s license in my hand all the way back home, wondering what it means. Did she want me to find it, or did she forget it from her last trip to Ghana? Did she leave it so I could see that I was older than her and nothing would ever happen between us? Why am I staring at these facial features that are not generally accepted in the book of beauty, for more than an hour on this bus ride? Why am I taking her dirty laundry back with me?

I want to close the hole in the shoulder of her checkered shirt. I want to empty the backpack on my bed again and lay in her scent before diluting her realness with the fabric softener she left in the right-side pocket. I want to feel her closer again because I know we might never be. One thing I do know is that she will call as soon as I close the doors. I know she will have nothing to say but breathe. Her breath is constant. Her breath has a life of its own. Emma’s breath lies close to me every night as long as the grid allows it.

The Foundation Church of Christ congregation is a tightknit community of believers who are quite certain that they are among the few one hundred and forty-four thousand biblical chosen ones who will join the son of man on rapture day. They’ve reminded me on several occasions that I would never really be worthy of that holy escort until I returned a dress I stole from a Chinese factory in Durban a few years ago. It is called restitution. They believe true forgiveness happens when one confesses their sins and restores back what they had taken. I have confessed on several occasions too. To the pastor, to the leaders and to Emma, and I always get the same answer. I have not been baptized by the fire.

The pastor’s first advice was to never feel.

‘We walk by faith here, Sister Jude, not by feelings!’ he said.

‘Pastor, I feel like I have swept my house and left the pile by the doo…’ I was desperate for my feelings to be heard.

‘Sister, that word should not even be in your vocabulary!’ he said sternly as though he would hit the table hard with his fist, though he didn’t.

A few drops of sweat were emerging on his nose. Pastor Nyerere had a sloppy, large head, and his skin was darker than any local dark person in our country. One noticed immediately that he was Kwerekwere even before he said Wada when he demanded a glass of water from any of his loyal subjects who, by the way, spent most of their day on church premises.

Throughout my life, my sense of feeling has always been stronger than anyone I know. They say the loss of one sense heightens the others. I am shortsighted. I usually close my eyes so I can feel everything around me. That is how I have navigated the world for as long as I can remember. Now I have to learn anew. Learn not to feel anything, and this seems impossible at the moment. Especially these feelings I have for Emma.

Pastor Nyerere ordered that I meet the elderly women to be taught how a true Foundation Church woman behaves. There was the deacon’s wife, a tall light-skinned lady of not many words. Every time I visit her, she tells me that by God’s grace I can become a virgin again, that she went into marriage still Intombi nto, and that it is the only thing that matters. There also was the head choir instructor, a very sharp, skinny, unmarried lady in her late fifties. She is still called Sister and hangs around with my peers. ‘Sister’ sings like the last note in her throat is about to jump out of her skin. The third woman I was to meet was the wife of a successful businessman at church. She would be driven into church seated behind the driver’s seat with her baby. That baby in turn was always a passenger on his mother’s back. I had heard she held a degree from one of the country’s highly acclaimed universities, but her husband preferred home-cooked meals and well-ironed suits, so she took care of their home while he worked. It is not my place to judge anyone, so I was prepared to listen to her and any other woman who was brought my way.

The first meeting was held in one of the classrooms of the church’s primary school, a grade R classroom with old dusty pictures of animals peeling off the walls and hardened Bostik. The ladies wore their smiles better than the usual headwraps we wore to church. They claimed that we were not forced to cover our heads and that the Holy Spirit guided us even in our clothing choices. I dressed like the other female churchgoers to avoid drawing unwanted attention to myself. I felt compelled—by the Holy Spirit?

A true Foundation Church woman does not smile with men. During my early days, while in the kitchen as I was helping serve the food, one short, happy gentleman joked about the beans and veggies on his plate. I mistakenly responded to him with a smile. No sooner than the smile had disappeared, I was immediately rebuked by the glowering eye from a lady seated at the far end of the table. I lost my smile. I am trying to welcome it back to my face, but I doubt it will be anything like my original smile.

Another thing we couldn’t do at church was hold hands. We were always reminded that we were not friends and were on a mission to get to heaven. Our earthly bodies didn’t deserve that much care. I felt like a soldier on an impossible mission with all the dos and don’ts. Furthermore, there was the prevailing notion that I still had not surrendered my fleshly desires which still made me ineligible to enter the kingdom. I desired Emma. I yearned to talk to her without a Bible between us. Woman to woman. Skin to skin. I thought of faking a fear and making myself vulnerable to her. Hopefully, she would see me and my need for her and expose her need for me. I believed that I would be the one to teach her how to feel again.

The trio of women told me that they had seen cases like mine before. They were quite sure it was loneliness that bothered me. They prescribed the company of another female who would spend the night daily at my house. They appointed Emma. Emma was seen as quite mature in spirit and would teach me further on the dos and don’ts of a Foundation Church woman. Emma was the light that brightened the church’s dark walls. She walked slowly with her head tilted to the side like all the other Foundation females. Her baggy outfits draped her all the way down to her ankles. She said it was so that when she was in the light, no one would see the silhouette of her thighs. I desired to rub my thighs against hers. She kept her hair short and neat under her ubiquitous headwrap. There was life in Emma’s eyes though. Eyes that had felt excitement once upon a time. They were a deep brown in a sea of stainless white.

‘Hey, Sister Jude, what kind of life did you live before you came here?’ she asked, the morning after our first night together.

I told her I had lived what I thought was normal life. A life where everything natural and real was felt and done without shame. I didn’t mouth that answer, ignoring her question because I wanted her to ask about the way I had touched her the previous night. I wanted her to speak about how my warm lips made her body flutter. I wanted her to ask me about the pulsating of our hungry hearts.

Nothing. She pointed to my seven-inch heels hanging on the wall next to an abstract painting I bought two years earlier.

‘How did you walk in those? What kind of a whorish life did you live?’

I felt a tinge of contempt, but Emma’s life seems sheltered despite the fact that she is about to celebrate her twenty-fourth birthday in less than ten days. She knows no other life but the Foundation which keeps one ignorant of the outside world. Heck, it has already worked on me! There are some things I am slowly starting to forget. It has been over six months since I played my favourite Beyoncé playlist. Emma once found me belly dancing to the Dance for You track one morning before the mass. She walked in on me as I moisturised, and I proceeded to shake and exaggerate my movements in order to impress this innocent girl in front of me. She stared at me impassively till I was done. I didn’t dare to touch her then. I wanted to but we were running late, so I overcovered my body, and we left for church. On the way, she told me ever so politely that the song she had heard in my house was not spirit lifting and would slow down my growth in the Lord. Determined to please her and hoping she would grow to like me, I packed Beyoncé away.

Emma further suggested that we burn all my heathen clothes, so I can be completely free from the sins of my past. A past that included weaves, the slutty-red, way-too-high heels topped with fur and all my jeans. I had wanted to hand down my stuff to my siblings, but Emma questioned whether I was ready to blame my stuff for their sinning? Emma thought I wasn’t, so burning them was the only plausible solution. So, we watched my sinful ways go up in flames. My reward seemed to come in the way of Emma’s arm which she put around me as we walked back to our room. A sense of relief came upon me. I was now a new being who had just burnt all temptation. That night, I tried as hard as possible to leave a space between us. I had to be pleased with myself because I had somehow won Emma over. Emma thought I had become one of them, that I had also burned my earthly desires for her. The thought of never holding her in my arms again kept me awake.

Emma woke up as bright as ever with her supernatural glow. The look in her eyes still left me with a deep unquenchable craving, and I noticed my skin was, comme il faut, darker and drier. It was not long before I started having frequent short blackouts whenever I raised my head. I started feeling lonely. Emma was oblivious to all that was happening to me. She spoke excitedly about our new lives together, suggesting I join the church choir or the prayer warriors’ ministry. Always hinting that whatever decision I reached was my choice. Somehow, I started listening less to whatever she said, but she never noticed. I felt empty. I missed talking to my brother who had always been my best friend. Once I joined The Foundation, I spoke to him less and told him that he was a dipsomaniac. I longed to speak to him but had forgotten his number. I was desperate for some retail therapy in order to feed my empty soul, but my salary catered more to the church needs than mine. I wanted to go back to doing laundry to make some extra cash.

Doing laundry was a task introduced to me when I first joined the Foundation; I was told that it would be the kind of job that would teach me humility. So, I washed clothes before I got a proper job. However, I’m back here again. Nailing a sign written ‘Laundry done here’ with the number five and an arrow pointing down to my gate. Emma now lives with the deacon’s family. I hear they are preparing her to be a Proverbs 31 kind of wife for her upcoming wedding in two months.

About the Author

Mammatli Agnes Molefi

Mammatli A. Molefi is a social worker, poet and creative writer. She writes for adults and children in a variety of genres, including romance, action-adventure, fantasy, thriller, horror, mystery, police procedurals, family sagas, women’s fiction and literary fiction. Her short story ‘While Still Breathing’ was published on, and her poem ‘Memories’ was included in […]