His hope rose with the sun, every day. He woke up before seven every day and the first thing he always did was open the window and watch the newly-hatched sun steadying its grip on slippery blue-white sky. He would watch the sun until his eyes gathered mist and the sun gathered heat. Now bankers were on their way to work; a very dedicated people, these bankers. He saw the bankers’ movement in the sun, when the sun got to the edge of his window he became certain that the bankers had now settled down for the day’s work. He would make for his cell phone and pick it up and hold it on both palms. He wanted to see his message alert come while he was watching. And he would stand, then sit, then walk around and watch for more than three-quarters of an hour. No alert from the bank. It was just eight-forty-five. It was the early morning rush time. The banks would be attending to customers and trying to tidy up on yesterday’s transactions.
They would send him the notification as soon as they cleared off more pressing issues. It was at this stage that Solo would drop his phone and pick up his toothbrush. He would wash his mouth leisurely in the veranda, an ear on his room, waiting for his phone to ring a new message. It wouldn’t. He would return to his room, put on his trousers and began a slow walk to Obi’s shop to buy bread and tea things. He would take his time, wait till Obi served everyone before making his order. After that he would walk further the road and stop at the newspaper stand and listen to the arguments and curses. He wouldn’t say a word, what had a sixty-four year old man to contribute in modern politics?
By the time he returned to his room, it was well past ten. He would make the sign of cross and check his phone. No new message. Sometimes he would see a new message and his heart would begin to beat: Gratuity, gratuity, gratuity. He would open the message and it was from a nonsense number telling him to text this to that number and win ten million naira. Stupid. A saddened Solo would heat water for tea and dip sorrowful bread on it and throw it into his mouth, mechanically. The banks had forgotten him. Abia State had forgotten him.
He had worked in the State Civil Service for close to thirty-five years. In fact, it was three months to retirement when he got dismissed from service. He was a non-Indigene and the governor had decided that non-Indigenes wouldn’t benefit from the new salary structures that Labour was demanding which many states had embraced. So the governor put the civil service in a sieve and flushed non-Indigenes out into the sewage of unemployment and lack. There was an outcry and protest in the media. The likes of Solo formed committees and even made a trip to Abuja to beg for the intervention of the magical first lady.
Three years later, no magic had happened; no one had intervened. Solo had thrown most of his savings pursuing his gratuity but nothing had come out of it. Now his account was reading red. If nothing happened soon, something would happen—he would starve.
One month back, a strong rumour emanated from where rumours emanates from, so strong was this rumour that it became a small truth: The governor who was recently declared the best governor in Nigeria by the president had been moved by the cries of the Sacked Non-Indigenes Association of Abia, and as parting gift and stepping stone to being elected senator, had decided to pay the SNAA people off. The rumour/truth started last month and gathered so much momentum that Solo now lived inside his phone inbox, waiting for the credit alert of his gratuity to hit him.
At mid-afternoon when the sun was hottest, Solo’s hope was highest. Indeed he had received most of his salary alerts by this time. Bankers had since settled the early morning rush; they now had time to alert legends.
Around one, the sun would hide behind unsure rain clouds and Solo’s hope would dim. The bankers were gone for lunch, he would tell himself. He would shut his eyes for his nap and dream of his gratuity. His most popular dream took place in the National stadium in Abuja where thousands and the camera watched as the governor called his name and the president handed him the cheque for his gratuity. The crowd would clap and cheer then he would be asked to say a few words. As soon as he grabbed the microphone he would wake up.
It was the same dream, every day; the only thing that changed was the colour of the hats the president wore; sometimes when he woke up, for one brief careless minute, Solo would wonder about a group of women who sit day and night just to manufacture hats for the president. Solo usually woke around two-forty when the sun had freed itself from the web of rain clouds. Solo’s hope will rise and he would make for his GSM, and check it. No message. He would wait on the phone, his hope falling as the sun made westward progress. By four, the sun had lost its scorch, banks had closed. But the sun still shined and he knew that banks closed doors but not work by four; they stayed back after four to dispute and compute. This was the best time to credit his account.
When the sun turns red by six, his hope fell to the lowest level. By the time darkness crept in, he had given up on today. ‘They will alert me tomorrow.’ He would go to bed disappointed, dream of his ceremonious award of his gratuity and wake up to wait on the sun.
Today was the last day of his seven days fasting. Solo had given up on God since that terribly Saturday morning in harmattan, nineteen years back when he came back from sanitation of the church to find a crowd in front of his compound. As he made to pass through them they grabbed him; he fought them, they pinned him down. His wife had been cooking on a faulty electric cooker and slept off as she had been on vigil watching Nollywood the previous night. Their three children hadn’t woken, it was no school day, and it was so cold outside. But the room soon became too hot, burning, and roasted them all… beyond recognition.
Solo hadn’t remarried nor gone to church since then, but this week he had called God back to his life. This governor, only God could melt his stony heart. So Solo was fasting and expecting to see his alert. This time around he hoped on Saturday; he knew that some bank worked limited hours on Saturday. He also hoped on Sunday; his God was a God of miracle, and it was a sun day anyway. Nothing happened. Something would, must happen today his last fasting day. If the bankers where so unruly that they wouldn’t remember him, Angel Michael himself would enter the bank, make for the computer and press Alert.
The sun had never been this hot before nor his hope this bright. He received so many text messages today but none where from his bank; no, one was from his bank. When he saw the message he ran outside the house and danced in the street wearing just his singlet and shorts. Then he rushed back to his phone and read:
‘Dear UWAKWE SOLOMON ELVIS, the balance of your account 249****881 as at the end of November 2014 is NGN284.00. Thank you for banking with us…’ For half a second the amount looked like 2.84 million naira, then it glimmered into 284 thousand naira and finally settled for the authority of 284 naira, zero-zero kobo. Solo made for his glasses and checked the amount, 284.00.
Something was drumming on the roof, Solo looked out the window—it was raining outside; the sun was gone, his hope was gone forever. Solo entered the rain and began to walk the wet street calmly, almost graciously, as though he was walking on the red carpet of his dream to receive his legendary cheque from the hatty president. When he reached a shelter where people stood cover from the rain he would stop and address them, pointing his soaked phone at them like a staff of authority.
‘I was born in this state, I grew up in this state, I studied in this state, I raised my family in this state, and lost my family in this state. But the governor says I am non-Indigene and throw my thirty-five years of service into the dustbin. Look at it, 284 naira, that is my gratuity for 35 years—eight naira per year. And God is watching.’ He would laugh a dry laugh and move on and continue to walk till he got to the point where he would repeat his story.
People who heard the story shook their head; ‘Poor old man,’ they said. They all had problems with government but they had never seen the governor before; they could see Solo and he was real to them; they gave him all they could afford—their pity. But Solo was beyond pity. It was raining hard and would always rain. And as long as it rained he would continue his street petitions against the government. He would never stop, or until he got to the edge of the world and fall off into another world where 284 and 2.84 million where what they are—mere papers.
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