A Grain of Hope by Popoola Samuel

*** 

Dilemma   

What a sunny Monday it was! I guess the sun was too bored to stay wrapped up in the blankets of the sky till the middle of the day. Just at 10 o'clock, every shadow had already been leaked up in the melting rays of firmament. One could hear distinct vrooms and peeps of passing vehicles and bikes. These couldn't belong to employees in town. They were apparently known as early risers. Six at dawn was too late to wake up, if they really wanted to make it to their respective offices as yet an active worker and not a fired wailer. The creed was “Crack with dawn or cry with dusk.” Once subsequently elapsed 8 o'clock twice or thrice before signing in, it was an obvious signal one had secured another job elsewhere. Sooner or later, a letter in red must have been waiting on one's desk. After all, there were thousands of people with papers out there who had never found means of living. The dismissal of some people was then the recruitment of others. Misfortune of some at dusk was luck of others at dawn. 

Those who were really wise and had the interest of their jobs at heart, just like a lactating woman would hold her babe dear to her breast, must have set out by four. This was never without a thorough calculation. By six or about thirty minutes after, if the congestion was less intense, they must have reached the schools of their children and dropped them only to be carried later in the early evening. This had been the tradition, though schools ideally opened for academic activities by 8 o'clock. However, the managements had also known them for that, in that the security men had already been instructed to start keeping driveway gates open as early as thirty minutes after five, every working day. Such a busy world it was!

Visible to people in high places or shops nearby, two men just got off a mini-bus being called ‘Korope’  and began ranting on each other. One was a short, but sturdy man, wearing an unbottoned shirt of rolled arms over a tattered jean from whose belt loop a red handkerchief was flapping to the rhythm of wafting breezes.  His voice was sounding like that of a torn drum, while his crimson eyes were sparkling flares. The other was a man in a pale shirt, tucked into his pair of pitch-dark trousers. His CANVAS shoes seemed frazzled all around. Nonetheless, they were better, compared to the flip-flops of some detached straps which the former wore. 

In no time, crowds had started building up. Some bike men and commercial drivers had to wait at least to peep at what might be the case.  It however appeared to be a minor hassle which to the best knowledge of everyone around could only be an informal haggling between both. Since the the banal phrase everywhere was “E no easy,” such a case was never an outrageous one. These were the days one could see a person who was once by nature gentle become aggressive all of a sudden in the moulding hand of penury. Even ready to pick offence at every unmotivated syllable, that one could hardly tell whether it was actually the word,  not the hunger lacerating him.

While the shorter man had spoken thousands of words with only very few goosebumps building up,  the other could hardly spit a syllable without a great company of sweats seeing it off. And at every slight move of his body, his ropey tie must side-to-side dangle twice or thrice. This rowdy scene might have been what helped jerk a middle-aged man looking from a window of three-storeys building battered with a large engraving, "BABAT HOSPITAL" back to the consciousness of his own reality.
The man sighed heavily as he hissed pensively along. He withdrew his glabrous head and turned to a woman on a bed in the ward. The woman on a drip was lying on her back and hardly could one beat one's chest in averting her complexion. She had an ebony face, however pale from the neck downwards as if covered in snowflakes. Her eyes roved only once in a blue moon, being fixed towards the marbled ceiling as if there hung her healing.
He kneeled beside the bed and clasped her hands in his strong palms. He let two or three balls of tears before he finally gained his voice.

“Darling”—a laconic pause, intercepted with a sniff or two—“you know how much I love you.”

“But, never to the extent of trading in your eternal soul for my mortal body,” replied the woman in a relatively incoherent but discernible voice.
With a drooping head, he said, “Not that my hollow depth truly gives in, but I can't just afford to lose you. Just this chance, please! A little compromise might not end it all.”
“Honey, who is your teacher? I tell you it can end it all. In fact, it would end it all if you dare. It can even crumble the whole universe and reduce the outright human race to a handful of dust.”
“ But, how are we going to get the remaining one million naira for your surgery?” asked the man, who's buried his head in the grave of his palms. “This is getting out of hand.”
“God will! I said, ‘God will!’” In a voice hung by a thread, though booming in her hollow self.
“How?”
“I don't have a slight idea. Just compose yourself and go. A grain of hope might yet lie at the far end of a despair mill. Who knows?”
“A grain of hope?’ asked her husband in consternation. ‘Not the same finally filtered out last Friday?”
“What again happened on Friday, for I don't seem to grasp you well.”
“Oh, it's like I haven't told you. Seeing no improvement on your health  upon arriving on Friday contributed no little to my indifference. Pardon me, my love. The truth is just that, nothing good do I yet expect from their Nazareth any more.”
“Tell me more, Honey,” mumbled she.


                                                                       ***
                                                               Last Friday
It was only few minutes past 4, the day being ushered gradually into a flood of gloaming rays. A man dressed in a teal suit just let alone the handle of one of a suite of doors visible in that floor. Oh, it was Chris! He dangled a black suitcase all along, as he walked pensively towards the staircase leading to the first floor. In no time he grappled the side rail, a strange hand perched him on the left shoulder. He swerved his head reluctantly to confirm who he was.
“Oh, my boss!” said he, in a mild tone.
“Chris! Chris!” called the fair, short man.
“But, boss, I have sought your permission already. I can't afford to wait till the closing hour.  I don't know the condition in which my wife can be now. I just have to go and check on—”
In a ominous look, he cut in: “Who came here to ask you all that story?”
“But, Sir, what again?”
“Oh, you just like playing the fool of yourself. You know, for almost a week now you haven't signed that document. Just the same way I give the secretary she returns it.”
 
“But... Oga, I am a Christian. I have told you many a time I cannot do such a thing. The document contains some falsehoods which I cannot attest as a believer.”
“Wait, are you out of your mind? What sort of nonsense are you talking about? Do you know the amount of money we're talking about? I mean”—in a consternated smile—“a jaw-dropping sum of three million naira.”
 
A moment of silence broke in. He was expecting him to reply just immediately, but to no avail. The puzzled boss spun himself around in the fleet of a second and began to speak to him again.
“Don't you have anything to say?” asked he. “Oh, it's like I now understand you. You think one-third of it is too small for you. All right! I'll increase it to 1.2 M.”
“Even, if the whole of 3 M were to be allotted to me, I wouldn't yet give in. Boss, I AM A CHRISTIAN! I can't afford to dip my hands into any uncleanness or whatsoever called.”
 
The man was caught aback with his roomy mouth open. He didn't appear to have understood what might be going on or wrong. He peeped at him again in bewilderment.
“You mean, you're in right mind?” asked he, with a vestige of amazement.
“Definitely, Sir.”
“But, was it not last week you told me you would be needing a sum of two million naira for the surgery of your poor wife?”
“Yes, Sir.”
“Oh, it's like you've found the remaining half.”
“Not at all. But, I know my God will provide. Not through a dubious means though.”
“Just to sign a document!” vociferated he. “Just to sign a document”—jerking him back and forth—“Chris?”
“At the expense of my integrity, boss!”
 
“To hell with your integrity!” exclaimed he, furiously. “Well, I give you some grace till Monday to go turn it over well. You come on Monday with a malleable heart, you remain here. Otherwise, you find another job elsewhere. Bye!”
“But—”His train of thought was interrupted by the whizzing departure of his boss in fury.
He remained stagnant, gazing towards the direction he vamoosed until he eventually dangled into a corner. The jamming sound of a door was subsequently heard loud and distinct.
After some minutes of staying confused and frustrated, Chris gloomily padded down the staircase, heading towards the main exit. The automatic door gyrated open and he stepped out.


                                                                       ***
                                                           A Grain of Hope
The aura was still doleful and pensive. Involuntary quietude suffused every living and non-living things present. Two big balls of tears rolled off the woman's ebony cheek and landed on the pansy bedsheet as though of the sound of many cascades. Chris tried as much as possible to hold back his, but couldn't afford to release two or three to do justice.
 
Another patient sitting on the abutting bed seemed to have overheard what they were saying, for he couldn't just stop shaking his head sympathetically with his arms folded against his chest. Who knew what might bring him to this ward also? However, it was obvious one of his legs was bigger than the other, having been heavily coated with some plaster.  Most likely, he had to be one of those bike riders on whom commercial bus drivers hardly had pity on highways. He appeared to have been a victim of an accident which had almost claimed him one leg.
 
Chris loosened his tie and looked up to view what the clock just struck. It was exactly 10 o'clock. He subsequently scorned it and brought down his lashes in such that his eyes fell on his wife's face again.
“What's now the time, honey?” asked Veronica, in sighing muddled with some relief.
“It's only two hours past,” replied her husband indifferently.
“It's high time you left for the office.”
“Never bother, dear. There's no point in going there again. Since we've resolved to stay on the side of the Lord, though it's your faith holding mine now; I only go to meet a sack letter. Why then should I take the trouble of going in vain, while at the same time leaving you to a risk.”
“You've got to go. God is the one on our side.”
“But, who's going to look after you?”
“Do not be troubled. I will be fine. And, by now, I guess mummy must be only a stone's throw from here.”
“But, I can't afford to leave you helpless like this. Once mummy arrives, I might summon courage to leave.”
“You've just got to go now. Don't worry! God will never forsake us. We only need to faithful on our own side. But, as of God, unfaithfulness is never an option.’
“Well—”
She cut in: “Nothing else! Let's just pray.”
 
His husband momentarily gazed at her. He finally clasped her hands and they both whispered a word of prayer. He pecked her on the cheek. He rose to his feet and began shuffling towards the exit. He was about to grap the door handle, when he suddenly rushed back.
 
“Please, promise me you would stay with me throughout my lifetime,” said he, in a beggarly look.
For the first time in few hours past, she roved her pale eyes to the side where Chris stood bending over her. She let out a very big grin, revealing nearly all her thirty-two teeth.
“Look into my eyes!” enjoined she. “Do you find any trace of death there?”
“Not at all,” replied he, in a tremulous voice.
“Believe it. And that settles it.”
“I believe, dear. May God however help my unbelief!” said he, opening his palms towards heavens.
 
He stood erect, returning to the exit in intermittent steps nonetheless. He hardly moved an inch without looking over his shoulder until he finally grappled the door handle. He pulled it and the wooden door creaked open. He stepped out and the door was afterwards heard  close mildly behind him. He was gone.


                                                                            ***
                                                     Many words in a Kobo Paper
The scorching sun seemed to have subsided before Chris could reach his place of work. And this must have been his delight. Though he was driving in a Camry car, to board a bike sometimes might be a better option, especially during the summer. In any slightly sultry afternoon like this, he never prayed to drive. For hardly would one be able to distinguish between a typical Nigerian bread oven and his very humble car. As one was perspiring through face, one would be discharging mucus from nose. No functioning air condition to write home about. And it was never advisable to always keep the windows open, in sight of noxious dusts which did build up when driving through all those gritty roads that led to the company where he was working.
 
He was now at the entrance gate of the company building. He wound down the window at his side and peeped twice or thrice until the metal gate slided open. He gently drove in, as he waved shortly at the gateman. In no time he parked the car at the lot and alighted from it, the man scudded towards him in a wide grin.
“Good morning, Sir!” greeted he.
“Oh, Mr Alex, how are you doing?”
“I'm fine, Sir!” responded he. “But, Oga, you're far behind the time this morning. Hope no hitch?”
 
His grammar seemed never to have put Chris off. He knew him ahead for that. He just chose to be flowery in his diction many a time. And oftentimes, Chris had wondered why a better job couldn't  find him. He could even remember he once told him he was a HND holder. Although to Chris, he might appear pitiable; to some educated others in the street who were yet seeking for jobs with their frazzled credentials always cleaved to their waists, he was fortunate. Of course, that's life!  For what faces someone turns back on someone else.
 
Chris glanced at his wristwatch and said: “Oh, that's true. It's been a little challenge. Well, God is in control.”
“All is well, Sir!”
“Thank you, my brother,” said Chris, as he attempted some moves towards the ingress of the building.
“Wait, Sir!” appealed the young man in the brown uniform. “Are you also aware of the visitation of a bald Caucasian man with a full fluffy white beard.”
 
Chris smiled a bit and said: “You and your grammar again!”
“Never mind, Sir,” said he, in a courteous countenance coupled with an involuntary wriggling of his locked hands. “He only drove in only few minutes before your arrival. He felt quite more homey than any visitor so far. In fact, he hardly got off his Four Wheels when our Oga-at-the-top quickly came down in the most joyful smile I've ever seen and ushered him upwards.”
“Well, I don't have a slight idea of any specific White man coming. However, he might be one of tens of them partnering with our company,” replied he, in a less interested manner.
“No, he can't be one out of many. He is very strange. And I even guess he's currently holding an administrative meeting with the whole members of staff up there.”
“It's okay, then,” said the jaded man. “I'll soon know who he is. Enjoy your day, Mr Alex.”
“No enjoyment here, boss. How I wish I could be part of the meeting!”
“You can as well leave your duty and follow me then.”
“See Oga as e dey whine—” A cacophony of some raps at the gate interrupted the chain of his raw pidgin.
 
He vamoosed the scene immediately, running towards the gate. Chris subsequently let out some hilarious smile and took some indifferent steps towards the building ingress, as he eventually disappeared into the building.
 
Mr Alex opened the walkway part of the gate, only to meet a chubby woman carrying a tray of ripe plantains on her head. He hissed coldly and folded his arms in a dejected look.
“Good morning, Mr Alex!” said the woman.
“Mrs Adeowo is currently not available. They are all having an administrative meeting up there,” replied he, in a mildly resentful manner.
“Well,” said vendor, “you ought to first reply my greetings since we are not enemies.”
“See, woman, I'm not in the mood this morning! You just interrupted my sweet conversation with someone. You may come back later in the day. Bye!”
 
He subsequently closed the gate and locked it behind. He walked back into a plastic chair nearby, whistling Bob Marley's “Crazy Baldhead.”


                                                                            ***
                                                                   Fate or Faith
Before he reached the third floor, the thought of a White man or no White man had already escaped Chris' mind. All engulfed him was the emergency of the meeting going on. He was straining his brain every now and then to have a clue of what was going on. Nevertheless, he couldn't make out anything promising other than that closely echoing his fear. He was wondering what sort of meeting ever took place in that company without his foreknowledge.
“It is nothing other than the meeting of a bunch of conspirators,” thought he aloud.
 
He took left once he finally mounted the last step of the topmost staircase. He padded towards a door which was boldly tagged “Administrative Hall.” He wanted to pull the handle immediately, but took the second thought of nestling his ear against it if he would overhear anything intelligible. However, to no avail, as all he could pick was a bunch of mumbling sounds as of people talking under their breath. He took a mild sigh. He rapped at the door courteously and pulled it open. To his gentle surprise, he met the sight of a panel of his fellow employees in a formal conversation which his presence immediately called to a halt. His boss and a White man whom he guessed was the one Mr Alex was gossiping about were sitting at the top of the table. He was offered a seat which rather made him more nervous as opposed to what might be expected. All present eyes subsequently fell on him, though his were only brushed against his boss' in a neutral look.
“Chris!”
 
Though his boss said that as politely as possible, it sounded more or less like of a detonated bomb in his ears.
He dropped his eyebrows a bit and responded: “Sir!”
“Are you ready to sign the letter now?”
In a reluctant yet affirmative way, he said, “Sir, I am a Christian. I cannot do that. Moreover, I hold my personal integrity in premium to the detriment of any favour of man.”
 
Instead of saying over it, his boss drew out an envelope and glided it to him through the hands of two or three persons on the table surface. He picked it up, opened it and brought out a letter. He read it through in a lesser time than expected.
In a puzzled look, he said, “Perhaps, this is not for me.”
 
He made an attempt to return the letter, however still reticent, knowing fully well the addressee's name in the letter was his. His fellow employees immediately stood in ovation, save for his smiling boss and the beaming White man whose presence he hardly regarded until now.
“It's yours, Mr Chris!” said the White man.
“You mean, I have rather been promoted to be a Chief Operating Officer?” asked the dazzled man.
“Definitely,” responded his boss, subsequently rising to his feet.
“Congratulations!” said the Caucasian man, offering Chris a handshake.
“But, how?” asked he.

All whoopings and ovations were called to a halt, as each person began to have his or her seat. The White man of whom it was now evident to Chris was the same man Mr Alex talking about now sipped some water and took a laconic sigh, before he began his captivating address.
 
“My name is Winfred Clinton. I am the CEO of ‘Quirk & D Company’ both now in United States and Africa. I'm very sure you might not have heard so much about me. It's inevitable 'cause the man here”—placing his arm on the shoulder of Chris' boss—“David, has always proved to be a loyal friend and hard-working COO of this branch, operating also more or less as the CEO to you, fellows. For a good decade now he took over, this company has never known a better past.”
 
He coughed a bit, reached out for another sip of water. He resumed his words, while Chris' twenty -twenty vision was eagerly keen on him and his brain guessing every syllable in sequence.
 
“Because we just erected another branch of this company at the heart of New York City, I began to look forward to having a man like David who could take over the affairs of the company after the pedigree of integrity. Chris, he then suggested you, having observed you over time as a brilliant, diligent and honest man. But, then, I conspired with him to put you through a dire test of integrity. Mind you, none of your fellow workers present now was aware until few minutes before your arrival. And on this last day of the test, it's a fortune for you to as well avert your integrity before my eyes.
 
If you therefore consent to take up this post; an instant credit of ten thousand dollars, coupled with a free housing and a brand new Lexus hatchback would be yours for the next three months to spend in Nigeria more.”

In profuse tears of joy, he managed to say,“What else than to say emphatically I CONSENT?”
His boss looked at him in rarest delight and said, “How terrible it is for a man to suddenly realize that it pays to keep the altar of probity burning, even when the darkness of corruptions seems too thick to subdue.”


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